John Kirwan: How to up your Health and Wellness game

How to up your Health and Wellness game, with John Kirwan. 

Performance Expert Shares the SECRET To UNLOCKING YOUR POTENTIAL

What a story Sir John Kirwan has written in the book of his life. From the field to his passion for being in service. His new endevaor is called Mighty, its a going to be become part of the New Zealand School curriculum  and its all about the ABCs of mental health. We are going to learn not only about this but also the things we can all do to unlock our potential and feel better than ever before. 

First of all, Kia ora John – we have so much admiration for you as an All Black but especially for all the work you’ve done in the mental health space. Tell us, when you did you decide to become somewhat of an ambassador for mental health in New Zealand? Take us back to that moment. 

Thank you, and thank you for carrying on the torch! I think it was probably the hardest decision of my life because back then, there was a LOT of stigma, and I actually thought I’d probably ruin everything that I’d created from a career point of view and from a respect point of view. 

And look, it’s stupid to think about it now, but back then there was a lot of stigma. I remember ringing my mum about it, she said, ‘Well, how bad was it for you in there?’ I said, ‘Hell on earth, Mum’. So she told me if I could help one person, do you think it’d be worth all that? Of course, she was right. So, I tried to concentrate on just helping one person. 

When you look back compared to where we are now, the ability for us to talk and it not be weird, and to just have a conversation with mates and check in with them – it’s huge. You’ve normalised that in so many ways and I think now with kids and being in our schools and starting these conversations early, it’s just such an epic thing to now be putting your attention on. Why is it so important to educate our kids on wellbeing, in the same way we educate about the alphabet and mathematics?

I woke up five years ago and read the paper, and read that we had the worst mental health statistics in the OECD. I thought, ‘well, I’ve failed’. Failure doesn’t scare me, mate – it’s not like I haven’t done a good job or I haven’t achieved what I want to do. I used to be scared of it, but now I’m not. But I knew that with those statistics, we must be looking at the problem wrong. 

So I thought, ‘What are we teaching our kids? How can we prepare them for this new world?’ I took the funding we raised and talked to different people – child psychiatrists, psychologists, teachers, headmasters, marketing managers, IT specialists, you know, a whole range, and got them in a room. 

What we came up with was that our kids don’t get taught mental health as a subject. So, there are three things. One, it needs to be a curriculum-based program. Second, we don’t need to put any more pressure on our teachers or our schools from a human or financial resource point of view. And third, it needs to be co-designed – what might work in Invercargill might not work in Mangere. So we gave some money to the University of Auckland to create a curriculum around what I call the IQ and the EQ of mental health.

We then employed coaches – they go into the schools to upskill the teachers on this curriculum-based program, so then the teachers can help the kids understand their mental health. We’re in currently 70 schools, we’ve got 300 on the waiting list, and we want to roll it out to all 1200 schools in New Zealand, that’s sort of our dream.

I know there’s a lot of parents out there that are just so excited for the kids to get exposed to this. The big thing for me with mental health in New Zealand, it feels very heavy, it’s kind of hard to engage with and it gets a lot of people really angry? How do we make it more light and more easy and approachable?.

Prevention brother! A lot of mental health discussions are about the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff But this is what I call a modern illness, and we’re not prepared for it. Don’t quote me on the stats, but I think we need 15,000 psychiatrists and psychologists, we’ve got 4,920 and we trained 30 in a year. We need to focus on prevention. 

When I talked about mental health going into Health and Safety Act and I also created a business called Groov, a digital platform that goes into the workplace to look after your genuine mental health. I think the future of leadership is actually being a genuine mental health, wellbeing-led leader. We have too much in our lives right now, we’ve got Slack, we’ve got Zoom, you’ve got your computer, your phone, all this other stuff. But what we do need now from a leadership point of view, is genuine mental health care and an understanding of that in the workplace. 

The second thing is, we’ve got to educate ourselves, It’s about having the tools and techniques that you need on a daily basis to look after your mental health. It’s learning those tools. I went from just surviving to thriving by learning a whole series of mental health techniques to look after myself on a daily basis. And I think the future of that is teaching it to our kids, but also adults learning it.

We’re here in 2022 and we have more inputs into our brain today than our parents and our grandparents had in a lifetime. We need new tools to deal with this modern world and our kids are being brought up in a world we don’t understand. When you and I went to school, if we didn’t get invited to a party, we didn’t find out till Monday. We didn’t to see on social media everyone having a good time. So there’s a lot more pressures on our youngsters now and they need better tools to deal with it.

So what’s in your mental health toolbox, the daily practices or rituals that you do as your non negotiables? 

Ok if I could say it (a little plug!) download the Groov app for free, which has what we call the six pillars, based in medical science. People think that your mental health plan must be complicated but it’s not. Mine is really, really simple. I have a shower every morning, but I feel the water – that’s a very mindful moment for me. I don’t think about the future, don’t think about the past. I have a cup of coffee but I sit there. My phone’s not invited to my coffee date, it’s with me and the coffee. Because if you take your phone, you’re not going to taste the coffee, you’re going to be distracted. I have a very active mind, I have what they call a ruminating mind, I just call my mind the monkey brain. So to relax I either read, I cook, play the guitar or I surf. 

So sometimes I’ll do two or three of those things in a day but I’ll do at least one. I also habitually breathe. I do a series of box breathing, which is also on the app, one of the earliest things I learnt. I also have something to look forward to every single day – I celebrate. So every day I think about the things I’ve done well, and I celebrate those. I connect and for me connection is when someone comes into my heart, I ring them or I talk to them or I send them a message or I go and meet them. 

That’s pretty much my daily mental health plan and when I do that, I’m keeping myself thriving, you know. We call it staying in my groove!

But it’s also important to understand when I’m out of my groove. I need to be aware of why, I need to acknowledge it. But then the thing that’s really important is I need to act on that. So I need to understand why I’m not in my groove.  

Let’s finish with gratitude John – what shows up your end? 

Gratitude is such an important thing for your mental health. And I don’t worry about yesterday because I can’t change it. And I can’t control tomorrow. So, my goal is to be the greatest, best version of me that I can be today. Then at the end of the day, I always have gratitude around, sometimes I don’t achieve some of the things I wanted to but that’s okay, if you get eight out of 10 days right, you’re gonna be okay. So, I have gratitude that I’m here. I’ve got a loving family. You know, things in my household are really good at the moment. So, I’m a very happy man.

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