Saving lives was beyond anything legendary All Black John Kirwan had in mind when he decided to tell the world about his battle against mental illness.

The former star winger has become a well-known face on television ads speaking about his own depression.

At a ceremony in Auckland City yesterday evening, he was honoured by the Royal NZ College of General Practitioners, whose members report a high number of men coming in for help after seeing Kirwan on the ads.

"One day I was happy-go-lucky JK," he says in his ad. "The next morning I got up, looked in the mirror and there was this guy I didn't like looking back."

Joined by his family, Kirwan spoke about his struggle with depression during his time as an All Black from 1984 to 1994, and of the difficulty of going public because of the stigma associated with mental illness.

"When I was first asked to do the national health campaign, I was scared," he said. "I was scared people would think I was a freak."

But having come out of depression himself, he said he wanted to help others going through the same illness.

Since the ads ran in 2006, he said he had received several letters and had had people come up to him and thank him for saving their lives.

"For me, that's been more important than being an All Black."