Norm Hewitt is packing a lot into a life that was once going nowhere, or nowhere safe.

He can also pack an extraordinary amount into a phone conversation.

The former All Black, aged 48, has a generous and seemingly limitless capacity for sharing his message, one that centres on releasing men from a "prison" of silence and violence.

Hewitt was in the spotlight again this week, inadvertently, after a speech at the National Rural Health Conference - including reference to a suicide attempt he made as an 11-year-old - which reportedly brought some audience members to tears.

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Speaking to NZME from Wellington, Hewitt says he was inspired by the moment, after the previous speaker had talked of losing his wife to suicide.

"It was the way he spoke," says Hewitt.

"He said his wife didn't take her life, it was depression, mental illness, that took her life. That resonated with me.

"I was just talking...I'm 11, the world is so confusing, everything is so hard, the silence around violence, I'm disruptive at school, the school says I've got problems, I need professional help, and I'm sitting in the toilet, trying to cut my wrists. My mother found me, and she just hugged me.

"I've shared this before. I didn't realise that it was being recorded, or that it would go into the public arena...although that doesn't worry me. My life has been very public."

Close to an hour in, our conversation is still going strong as Hewitt - a fearsome forward in his playing days - details the philosophies which drive his life and mission to help others, and the violence which led to this.

Publicly, his drunken tumble as an All Black in Queenstown, in 1999, was the first indication of a man in distress even if the headlines and rugby bosses were more concerned with a man behaving badly.

Hewitt, whose family lived in Porangahau, southern Hawkes Bay, was first beaten "black and blue" by his father around the age of nine.

Hewitt helped move his parents to Wellington about 14 years ago, as part of the healing journey, but it took a long time before he was able to properly confront a past which included four generations of family violence.

The catalyst was a redemptive documentary he made with the actor Manu Bennett, who Hewitt had assaulted when they were at Te Aute College.

"Until last year, I was trapped in a prison, the nine-year-old boy who was beaten by his father," he says.

"I was able to ask my father...I was nine when you beat me to the point that I thought I was going to die. When my father said it didn't happen, my mother said it did. For the first time, I saw my father cry, the remorse for the beatings.

"For my own son and my mum to be present, to stand in that moment, for my father, a 75-year-old man, to hug me and to say sorry. I became that nine-year-old boy again. I didn't realise how much I had yearned for that."

At the conference, Hewitt challenged the health professionals and students to be more observant and pro-active in helping patients deal with violence. His own evolving path involves an array of influences, revealing a love of teaching and learning.

Until last year, I was trapped in a prison, the nine-year-old boy who was beaten by his father

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These include the late Josie Karanga, an East Coast-based mentor who had given him "incredible tools" including the need to be present in the moment, an increasingly difficult task, as Hewitt puts it, in a world when there is always another text or email on the way. She also emphasised the need to uphold mana (respect), tapu (sacredness/lineage) and mauri (life force).

"We judge people by the shoes they wear, the car they drive, the materialistic achievements," says Hewitt, who raced from the weekend health conference to the Omarumutu Marae, near Opotiki, for her tangi.

"Josie presented herself with unconditional love, she didn't judge or accuse, she just opened her arms,"

Hewitt also cites, among many others, the American poet Robert Bly, particularly his international best seller Iron John: A Book About Men, and the poem I have Daughters, and I have Sons. He speaks at schools, prisons, and mentors managing directors, including the boss of a Sydney property company.

"I was recently in Sydney, and I've never seen so many homeless families, not people, families," he says.

"I saw this girl with her hand out, next to her mum and dad, and all their luggage was stacked up in the corner. Everyone walked past that little girl - it was like these human beings did not exist.

"How do we suspend judgement long enough to look at humanity, and what's my role?"

He will text young men he believes may be vulnerable, urging them not to be trapped in silence, to ring him any time. His brushes with tragedy include meeting a father who took his life just weeks after approaching Hewitt to help his son.

How does he take so much on?

Hewitt says: "I've definitely found a purpose. When did we put men in this box? The bullying, don't show emotion, the language of harden up, don't be a girl, don't be a pussy. You can do this, you can't do that. We keep traumatising and re-traumatising people, taking them back to the prison instead of setting them free.

"We need to stop all forms of transgressions, not just by the fist. We are making progress, and if I'd was talking about this 10 years ago, they would say it's all that soft tree-hugging stuff.

"But when I look on TV, and see people standing in the dock, who have done some terrible things, I go 'Who hurt that child?'.

"My father has said to me 'I am so pleased that you are free, but there is an 11-year-old trapped in me'...

"(this comes) from when his father came home, dragged him from under the bed, and beat him to the point he thought he was going to die.

"I said 'Dad, I know granddad is not here anymore, but his picture hangs on the wall and when you find the words you want to share, I will stand next to you'..."

Helping fight domestic violence Get help online or Call 0800 REFUGE

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633

Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)

Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)

Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.