From playing for the All Blacks and coaching internationally, to being named a New Zealander of the Year finalist and becoming an ambassador for mental health, Sir John Kirwan has done a lot in his lifetime. Kayla Hodge finds out what he’s learned about living well – and why he’s so passionate about helping other New Zealanders live their best lives.
Sir John Kirwan woke up one day and told his mother he was a dead man walking.
Her response – “the good thing about your dead is you are still here, you can just start again”.
At the peak of his career, the 63-cap All Black battled with depression and anxiety, behind closed doors.
panic attack on the field against France in 1990, dropping the ball because he could not see it.
Three years earlier, he scored one of the greatest tries at the inaugural Rugby World Cup, against Italy
“I came off the field waiting for the coach to realise I was just lucky, and I shouldn’t really have been there.”
Worry was a redundant emotion, and he credited the “worry map” with saving his life.
It still worked to this day, as he dealt with his son recovering from Covid-19 in Italy, and his wife visiting the country to look after her elderly parents.
“If she gives that to her parents, that’s a death sentence, but what can I do about it?”
It was about being able to “control the controllables” – he could make sure they had tests, and phone them, but the rest was out of his reach.
Sir John’s life turned around when he took his mother’s advice.
During a shower, he focused on feeling the water, blocking out his thoughts, and starting again.
It was the start of his plan, then he saw doctors, learnt to breathe properly, and learnt auto-hypnotism, where he identified his fears.
Leaving school at 15 years old, and never passing an exam made him feel dumb, and he said imposter syndrome came to the forefront during his world cup try.
He said starting anti-depressants made him feel like a loser, but he was happy to take “whatever I need for footy”.
But his father, who had three triple bypass surgeries, told him to get over himself.
“He goes these little white bastards, so if I don’t take them today I’ll die tomorrow, so take your little white pill and get over yourself’.
“Dad was going to take 25 pills for his heart, and I didn’t want to take one pill for my head.”
Depression stole his zest for life and his confidence as a rugby player.
“You can’t enjoy life, you don’t enjoy anything and I love having a laugh. It was like being a different person.”
Having a plan allowed him to look forward to each day, and communicating helped grasp a better understanding.
“When I put my mental health first I’m a better husband, a better business partner, a better father and I’m just a better me.”
He encouraged people to read, meditate, try yoga, and turn their phones off.
“What happens when it craps out, turn it off, turn it on again – that’s what we need for our brains, you’ve got to unplug it now.”
Society’s pressures had increased, especially in rural areas, which had the highest suicide rate as a sector in New Zealand.
“You guys are the backbone of our country, and now for some reason everyone’s attacking you for polluting it – that’s extra pressure you don’t need in your lives,” he told farmers at an event at Weston Hall last week.
A high suicide rate – 1.5 people in New Zealand will die from suicide each day – called for more discussions, and tools, so he created the app Mentemia.
“One in five people are unwell in our country right now, 4% will be born with a mental health issue.”
“We live in a [Covid] pandemic, we live in two – 800,000 people committed suicide around the world last year, that’s a pandemic, and the only way we can change it is by changing our attitude.”
It was not a sign of weakness, and people needed to learn about it, and go to the doctor when they recognised symptoms.
No matter the community he spoke in, whether it be rural or urban, it was still a taboo subject.
“It’s a modern illness .. [why] I want to change the dialogue, is because it’s steeped in negativity, we’ve got to change that, it’s normal.
“For me to come into the communities and normalise it, talk about it – if I can affect one person, then I’m happy.”
Where to get help:
Lifeline Aotearoa 800543-354
Suicide Crisis Helpline 508828-865
Free text or call a counsellor 1737