Sir John Kirwan - Mental Health Advocate
Sir John began his presentation with the confronting statement “I was dead. Sometimes I would wake up and cry.” He went on to explain that at the time he had these thoughts he was in the All Blacks and driving around in a sponsored vehicle, but somedays was too scared to go to the letterbox. He felt he was a failure when he measured himself against society's expectations of a ‘man’.
Sir John went on to explain that he now knows he was suffering from depression. This left him feeling dead inside. “It takes away your self-esteem, your self-confidence and the joy of living.” At that time, with no help and no one to talk to, he felt that it was his fault. He went on to describe a turning point, a comment from his roommate in Buenos Aries on an All Black tour, Sir Michael Jones, who said “JK, you’ve got a good heart.” This comment spurred Sir John into seeking help and he was diagnosed with anxiety. He explained that this diagnosis helped immensely as he came to realise that what he was experiencing was an illness, not something that was ‘wrong’ with him.
“We all have physical health and we all have mental health. And, we need to make sure we are looking after both” was a key message from the presentation. Sir John gave analogies comparing the treatment of physical sports injuries to the treatment of mental illness. Like any illness, the sooner you reach out and get help the sooner you will recover; just like going to the physio, a counsellor will work with you to develop a plan for your recovery and rehabilitation.
Reaching out and asking for help is essential. Many young men will turn first to their mates for advice on most things that are important to them, and their mental health is the same. Sir John encouraged our young men to listen, to look out for each other and to be proactive in helping their mates get help when necessary.
He spoke about resilience – our ability to bounce back from difficulties. Resilience looks different for each of us given the different life experiences and backgrounds that we have and we should spend some time planning and identifying what things help us to be resilient. Sir John spoke about failure and how the fear of failure often holds us back from doing things and makes us anxious.
Sir John explained that his relationships with many of his friends have become much stronger since he opened up to them about his struggles with his mental health. Before he talked to them he was worried that they would judge him. However, the opposite turned out to be the case and he has been well supported.
Breathing exercises were an important part of the solution and help Sir John to manage his anxiety. To reinforce this point he talked about the current All Blacks team and their response when a try is scored against them - concentrating on their breathing is now a reflex action so that they can manage their anxiety on the field.
Below are two short videos that provide simple and practical breathing strategies that can help us anytime we find ourselves in a stressful situation. Regularly focusing on our breathing can help to reduce our stress levels at all times throughout the day.
Sir John has written two books, 'All Blacks Don't Cry: A Story of Hope' and 'Stand By Me: Helping Your Teen Through Tough Times'. Both books make frequent use of researched informed practice infused with practical advice and wisdom. The PNBHS library has multiple copies of both books.
We would like to thank Westpac New Zealand for providing this opportunity for our young men. Sir John Kirwan is a Westpac Ambassador: https://www.westpac.co.nz/who-we-are/sponsorship/westpac-ambassadors/sir-john-kirwan/
PNBHS Guidance Counsellor, Mr. Steve Dawson, has produced a presentation for parents explaining what anxiety is and what they can do to help support someone with anxiety, be it their children, a family member, friend or themselves: https://youtu.be/1OvKpj77SoU