'We're talking about it now - but what are the solutions?': Sir John Kirwan on the work still to be done on mental health

Sir John Kirwan.
Sir John Kirwan. Photo credit: Getty

Sir John Kirwin has launched 'Digital JK'. He talked to Newshub's Mark Quinlivan about how he hopes it will continue the fight against mental illness and why he's determined to help young Kiwis carry on the conversation. 

It's been more than 15 years since Sir John Kirwan first opened up publicly about his struggles with mental health. 

He played a key role in starting much-needed conversations about depression and mental illness, yet seems dissatisfied with that success alone. In his mind, his work is far from done.

"For me, I've got a goal - at the moment we have some of the worst suicide rates in the developed world. My goal is that we have the best," Sir John said in an interview with Newshub this week.

New Zealand is closer to that goal than it might have been in the 1990s when the former All Black, exposed to a male-dominated environment, first started struggling with his mental health.

But he knows the crisis is ongoing. New Zealand was ranked 35 out of 41 OECD countries in a UNICEF report released in September this year for mental health outcomes in youth. 

In addition, the most recent New Zealand Health Survey revealed 808,000 New Zealanders have lived or are living with a mental disorder. 

The figures drive Sir John to stay committed, knowing the work needed to see them change. 

"We've got to keep working and we've got to keep having the solutions," he explained.

"The awareness is out there but the solutions are as important, so the thing that worries me the most is, yeah, there's a whole lot of awareness - we're talking about it now but, hell, what are the solutions?"

So passionate about helping other Kiwis cope with their own mental health demons after battling his own, Sir John's latest solution is 'Digital JK' - a project that's been in the making for a couple of years. 

Sir John set up a company called "Mentemia" in 2018, now a digital wellbeing app, featuring 'digital humans' that can act as mental health coaches and counsellors.

'Digital JK', a digital version of Sir John himself, will provide solutions for sleep - something he said is crucial for mental wellbeing.

"What we wanted to do was be at the forefront of that technology - we wanted to give it a whirl.

"We want to start with sleep because I'm very passionate about sleep - I think it's such a fundamental thing for your mental health - our end goal is that everyone has a personalised mental health coach in their pocket."

The timing for such a tool appears perfect after a tough year for many with nearly one-third experiencing mental distress during New Zealand's COVID-19 alert level 4 lockdown. 

Sir John recognised COVID-19 has come with difficulties. 

"Our parents talked about the war, the great depression, which had ramifications for generations - we're going to be talking about COVID.

Sir John Kirwan.
Sir John Kirwan. Photo credit: Getty

"This will have different effects on everybody - it's affected my family like it's affected yours - everybody's got their own story around this because it's a monumental moment in our lives because we haven't really had any massive stuff in our lives."

But he believes there are positives that have come out of the pandemic. He's seen people talk more openly about their mental health than ever before.

"My problem with that is I want to deliver solutions because, as I say; awareness is awesome, talking about it is awesome but you also need solutions, right?"   

He wants to believe New Zealand's shocking suicide statistics are on the downward trend, with this year's figures showing the country's suicide rate had dropped to a three-year low, but is more focused on creating solutions so those numbers keep trending downward.

"If it bounces back next year I'd be disappointed because I'm hoping it's a downward trend, but I'm also not holding my breath. We've just got to do what we need to do."

Sir John has a theory as to what might help support the numbers continuing to trend downward, and is using his charity, the JK Foundation, to prove it true.

"We've got to educate our children about the life that we're throwing at them - I wanted to change direction from what I'd done because I didn't really think the TV ads and the books were going to be enough, so that's why I decided to create a foundation and … create something that our kids can learn from the age of 5 what it is."

On a personal level, Sir John practices mental wellbeing everyday; looking after himself and making sure of it.

He wants every New Zealander to have the Mentemia app, something he believes will help Kiwis master and manage mental wellbeing.

"When I put my mental health first I can pretty much deal with anything the world can throw at me; I'm a better husband, I'm a better father, I'm a better workmate, and I'm way more resilient because I've got a plan."

He implements that plan every single day - even though the struggles of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Have I enjoyed COVID? No, not at all - it's been horrible. My family's in Italy, my wife's been away for five months, my son's had COVID, I've lost income.  

"It's been really shitty but I'm well because, as I said, I put my mental health first."

He wants New Zealanders to be able to understand themselves, put a daily mental health plan in place, and look after themselves every day.

Sir John.
Sir John. Photo credit: Getty

"That's what I do and I have a very strong, daily mental health plan that I stick to. So if you can do that then, for me, that's the answer."

Sir John has been a big part of creating the mental health conversation in New Zealand. He takes no credit for it but speaks of how happy he is that the conversation has become normalised.

"You're talking to me about it, we've got a whole lot of people in prominent positions talking about it, and so I think that's really really cool.

"I think, especially, the younger generations - I'm talking about guys that are way younger than me - we're just starting to really embrace talking about it."

Sir John says when he finds out I'm 25 he's passing the baton to my generation. 

"You've got to talk about it to your mates, you've got to talk about it to whoever.

"The more that young guys like you talk about it and embrace the solutions, then we're going to win this one."