Tuesday August 09, 2022

John Kirwan tackles Covid-19 mental health

April 22, 2020

Ag WELLINGTON: After years battling his own demons, All Black legend John Kirwan is attempting to help fellow Kiwis struggling through COVID-19 lockdown by releasing a mobile phone app he calls “a mental wellbeing coach in your pocket”. 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.

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.