A conversation with Sir John Kirwan on mental wellness

On Saturday I went along to ‘a conversation with Sir John Kirwan' which combined his book launch with World Mental Health Day and Mental Health Awareness Week #MHAW14 

"doing those TV ads was the scariest thing I've ever done", Sir John Kirwan in stylish tan boots w pink/purple sock combo

If you don’t know who John Kirwan is, he is always high on the most trusted person in New Zealand list and that’s a little bit because he was an All Black and a lot because he is the front man for a series of mental health TV ads that are amazing and basically changed the whole conversation around mental health in this country. He’s also the current coach of the Auckland Blues rugby team.

Draft FCB- Mental Health Foundation TV ads smashed the mental health services

Thankfully, the MC person cut off all the yawn-fest rugby chatter and went straight into the topics he normally speaks on: depression as an illness not a weakness and how to care for self and others.  John told his story of ‘having it all’ and being a shaking, anxiety-ridden mess unable to communicate his fears and the very real physical symptoms that made his life hell. 

I think that was the main thing that made me stop and think. We spend a lot of time looking at the causes and trigger events for anxiety, depression, panic attacks and the like, yet if someone has heart disease or cancer we get them straight into specialist care for diagnosis and treatment.  Truth is, we probably don’t have a lot of the services that we should have for mental health and it’s going to take a while before our services catch up as we have only just started talking about it and acknowledging depression as a real thing.  I know some people are a little critical in the ‘it’s alright for him because he’s an All Black and he has money and can pay for private treatment and therapy'  sense and he openly talked about that. People in the audience shared their stories both positive and negative of their experiences of trying to get help for themselves and others. I think the fact that 150 people could sit in a room and freely talk about their personal challenges with empathy and a desire to see things improved is a huge step forward in one generation.  Thanks for the TV ads John. 

"Put the oxygen mask on yourself first, you’re of no use to anyone else if your mental health isn’t right"

me + JK

I was especially happy to hear him talk about ‘everyday wellness’ and slowing down to appreciate the little things as I think, in business especially, we associate rest with holidays and taking time off which has never made any sense to me. I don’t necessarily want time off or annual leave, but I do want to be able to contribute in a way that’s sustainable so I don’t lose my mind and get unhealthy and frustrated and have to keep working against myself all the time. We focus on the two weeks off and not doing the other 50 weeks in a more human way which hopefully will start to change as people start to realise that you can enjoy your work and not have to hold out for holidays your whole life. 

John went over the importance of getting fear out in the open and talked about it in the context of getting his current, dream job as the coach of the Auckland Blues. 

 “You’re either the coach that’s just been sacked or the one waiting to get sacked”

"can you Photoshop the side on one- I'm a fat b*stard at the moment" -I tried a tasteful crop John...

Leadership and coaching is serving and giving unconditionally to your team and not expecting anything in return. The grind can be draining and the anxiety of ‘what if it doesn’t work out’ can screw with your chances of getting on with the job and making good decisions. Admitting that you’re not bulletproof and that you need to prioritise, small everyday things like cooking a meal, going for a walk or reading a book can keep you anchored as the inevitable waves of challenges like media criticism, team blow outs and losing/failure occur. 

His book focuses on raising teen boys and the need to educate young people about stress, fear and symptoms of depression so that people won’t have to go through “the six or seven years of medication and therapy” like he had to. John also wants to drive change for adding mental wellness and stress management as part of the high school curriculum which I think is a winner. I think perhaps the other JK (Prime Minister John Key) might be getting a phone call. 

“Put it on your knee. Don’t put it in the cupboard”

Talk to your fear and anxiety. Get it out in the open and become self aware about what you’re experiencing.  It was a long walk out for John and he still works on it everyday and I think that’s an important message too. 

More information Mental Health Foundation