Mental health and sport: The JK effect

By Dylan Cleaver

No series on the mental health and elite sport would be complete without an examination of the remarkable efforts of one man.

John Kirwan is highly attuned to his players' problems. Photo / Greg Bowker
John Kirwan is highly attuned to his players' problems. Photo / Greg Bowker

An email dropped into my inbox late last week from a rugby player of recent vintage whose name would be instantly recognisable to those who follow the national game.

In heavily abridged form, it read: "I have been interested in the articles in the paper about mental health and its effects on players and I can really relate to a lot of the problems faced. I have had huge problems with mental health, alcohol and drugs over a long period of time ... I noticed things going backwards fast when I gave up rugby professionally ... I took to alcohol and drugs to help manage my mental health and things got progressively worse. It just wiped me out, took everything away from me."

The email listed his considerable achievements as a rugby player, which served as a stark counterpoint to his misery.

"I was really sick during these times mentally, I just thought it was normal and never reached out for help. I could [have] achieved a lot more if I had the right guidance ... I would really like to help other people going through similar problems before we lose a life."

We tentatively arranged to meet, before he texted the following day to say he just couldn't go public, apologising for "stepping forward then stepping back".

There was no need to apologise. That he even contemplated telling his story was an act of courage beyond most people.

If anything, this player highlighted the incredible bravery of one Sir John James Patrick Kirwan: being the public face of anything is onerous, let alone a disease that many still think is a sign of weakness.

'It's been phenomenal really," says Hugh Norriss, director of policy and development at the Mental Health Foundation. "What he's done is the first stage of a longer journey to raise awareness. You can see how he's even moving on a bit in that journey himself. Initially it was like, 'I'm an All Black and I'm owning up to the fact I struggled'.

"More recently he's been talking about the more positive sides of mental health ... The longer term journey is when we all start to develop a bit more literacy about our emotional state."

It is appropriate that Norriss mentions education, because that is a theme Kirwan traverses. He is embarking on a new book project that he's writing with the intention of helping parents pick up signs in their children that all might not be well.

"We teach English, maths, science at school, but we don't teach resilience to what could potentially be the biggest problem in your life, which is some sort of mental health issue for yourself or someone you know."

This is JK at his best, half informing, half cajoling. Kirwan is not a standard interview subject, that's not how he operates. He loves a metaphor - he talks about his internal roadside fire-risk sign to determine his state of wellness at any given moment - is analogous and will not hesitate to throw questions back at you.

"Do you have a partner?"

"Yes, I'm married."

"Do you have kids?"

"Two."

"Do you have a mortgage?"

"Sure do."

"Do you both have to work to make ends meet?"

"Yes."

"Do you feel some sort of guilt about that, for the kids?"

Kirwan is happy to answer that for you.

"Bloody oath you do. Can you avoid it? No, but you don't feel good about it. Now, you put that [stress] on top of a personal issue. We shouldn't have to deal with all that stuff, but these days we do.

"That's why it's a modern illness."

Kirwan started to experience problems mid-career, at the peak of his powers. Anxiety attacks developed into full-scale depression. He's ostensibly a rugby coach now, but the 48-year-old is also a counsellor and mentor who remains highly tuned when it comes to sensing problems among his players. He knows the signs and recognises the unique pressures of the industry. The former butcher's apprentice might just be the ultimate crossover spokesman: a hero, seemingly infallible at his peak, willing to unmask himself as flawed who continues to speak up and out for those uncomfortable or incapable of doing so themselves.

"I fear for a lot of players at the end of [their careers]," he says. "This is a hard industry. Professional sport is one of the hardest industries in the world. We don't have employment law and you're at the end of your career not at 65 but 33, or if you're outstanding 35.

"We're trying our best to protect the players but at the end of the day if you don't play well last week, you don't play this week. Imagine if someone didn't like an article last week, so they say, 'Sorry, you're not getting any articles in this week'.

"It's an incredibly tough industry. It makes a lot of the players resilient. They learn some pretty tough lessons at a young age and I'm not saying they're all headed for depression. Most handle it bloody well. But will there be a higher percentage of guys in sport getting depressed ... ?"

Kirwan says there is an onus on the industry to put support networks around its athletes. It is something the Players' Association is acutely aware of and Kirwan says he is "proud" of the industry-leading progress his sport is making.

All the while, Kirwan will continue to expose a little more of himself to his countrymen and women. The mental health message is one he will never tire of delivering. "The ongoing reason why I am continuing to do stuff is because people come up to me every day and thank me. That is an incredibly humbling situation."

This series was produced with the support of a NZ Mental Health Media Grant from the Mental Health Foundation and the Like Minds, Like Mine programme.

Key numbers

* We will look at the Rugby Players Association past players survey in more depth tomorrow, but some key numbers to remember are:

* The average retirement age of the 123 players surveyed was 32.

* For 48% of players, retirement was unexpected (ie they got injured or were not selected).

* 29% were not prepared for retirement; 60% said it took more than six months to ``gain control'' of their lives post-retirement.

* 79% of players earned more than $100,000 per annum in their final two years of playing; just 24% earned more than $100,000 per annum in their first two years after retirement.

Last week

Wednesday: Mental health is the elephant in the stadium, and Lou Vincent's struggle for acceptance.

Thursday: Cricket's unique stresses and Iain O'Brien's story.

Tomorrow: Rugby's groundbreaking survey and the addictions harming our sports stars.

- NZ Herald

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