Rugby legend Kirwan tackles Covid-19 mental health

John Kirwan (Gallo Images)

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The World Cup winning winger broke one of sport’s great taboos after a stellar international career when he revealed his struggles with depression, helping explode the myth that on-field glory equates to happiness off the pitch.

“I had medical depression, I was on anti-depressants – I wanted to jump out of a window one night,” Kirwan told AFP in a telephone interview.

“I’ve got learned experience in this space.”

Such is Kirwan’s passion for speaking out about mental health that when he was knighted in 2012 it was his pioneering advocacy, not his exploits in a black jersey, that earned him the award.

After writing two memoirs on the topic, Kirwan has in recent years devoted himself to a more hi-tech means of communication, a mobile phone app called Mentemia.

The app uses personality tests and cognitive games to build up a picture of the user and provide tips for reducing stress.

These include breathing techniques, mood tracking, action plans for boosting mental wellbeing or simple reminders to take some time out during a busy day.

While it may sound warm and fuzzy, Kirwan points out that it was developed with a team of clinical psychologists using evidence-based techniques.

“The journey I went on was very much about listening to professionals and understanding what they were telling me,” he said.

“This information is already out there, it’s about getting that science and knowledge and delivering it to people in a way that’s engaging.”

Mentemia – meaning “my mind” in Italian – was originally envisaged as a tool to help large corporations reduce stress in the workforce.

But as the coronavirus crisis deepened, Kirwan and his business partners became convinced it could play a positive role in helping New Zealanders cope during the pandemic.

“I’ve got family in Italy and I knew what was coming up, so we sat down as a business and said ‘What should we do?'” said Kirwan, whose wife Fiorella hails from Italy and whose son Niko plays for Serie C football club Reggina.

“The right thing to do was to gift it to the whole of New Zealand.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s government proved receptive to the idea and last week the app was made available free to all New Zealanders as part of the Covid-19 health response.

“It provides users with practical tips and techniques to help them take control of their mental wellbeing,” Health Minister David Clark said.

Kirwan, now 55, said his personal situation had long since transformed “from surviving to thriving” thanks to the techniques available on the app.

“I’ve got a very simple mental health plan – this morning I got up and had a shower, but the secret to the shower was being able to stop and enjoy the water,” he said.

“Then I had a little half-hour workout and after that I sat down and had a coffee. Already today I’ve done three things to contribute to my mental wellbeing.”

Kirwan, a World Rugby Hall of Famer with 63 Test caps, said he was one of many keenly missing the absence of sport as a distraction during difficult times.

“I think it’s having an incredible impact. I love my rugby, I love my football – sport to me is part of my mental health, so I’m missing it hugely,” he said.

He said there was a widespread acknowledgement of the strains Covid-19 was placing on people and he hoped to provide the tools to help cope.

“I interviewed a lot of young men developing the app and they’d say ‘My mind’s a treadmill, can you stop it?'” he said.

“I said I can stop mine but you need to pick up the techniques yourself so you can do it yourself.”

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