Looking after your mental health is just as important as looking after your physical health, former All Blacks star Sir John Kirwan told an audience in Hope last Friday.


Sir John, who these days focuses much of his time on removing the stigma surrounding depression, work that earned him his knighthood, was at the Hope Community Church to speak to people effected by the recent forest fires that led to people fearing for their homes and livelihoods, and also placed a huge amount of pressure on volunteers, such as local firefighters.


He spoke about his own experiences with trauma and depression, and the importance of trying to get back to some sense of normality by dealing with the little things first.  An important part of that was coming up with a daily mental health plan, he says, something simple that involved taking time out and trying to fit things in that bring enjoyment, no matter how simple they might seem. In his case they include coffee and cooking.


It might not be easy, but sometimes it’s necessary to follow the advice often given when you’ve got a problem with your computer. “Switch off, unpug and then plug back in.”


He says, as a rugby player he had no problem about seeking medical help over physical injuries, but when it came down to what was going on inside his head he, wrongly, felt like a loser, when, in reality, it was just a different type of health problem that needed addressing.


Men, especially, do not like to admit they might need help in that area, he says.  Unfortunately, many see that as a sign of weakness, which he says only makes problems worse. The pure adrenaline that was part and parcel of having the recent fires on back doorsteps could not be under-estimated and it will have an impact, he says, and if that does not go away, it was important for people to reach out and seek help.


Speaking from his own experiences, “that was the greatest thing I ever did,” Sir John says. “Don’t underestimate trauma. Don’t underestimate what you’ve been through. I’ve been through fear and I know what it feels like.”


Even after scoring a try against Italy in the 1987 Rugby World Cup that has been described as one of the greatest ever, at the time he could only see what he should have done to make scoring it easier. Back in the changing rooms after the game, all he could think of was “when is the coach going to realise that I’m not good enough? I was waiting to be dropped.”


Sir John says for anyone having trouble dealing with either the impact of the fires on their lives, or the drought that has also has a big effect on the district, there is help available, and there is no shame in asking for it. “Your troubles aren’t going to go away but there’s a lot of help out there,” he says.


If problems were property or business-related, the first thing most people would do would be find some tools to create a solution, he says. Making sure you are mentally in a good space to deal with them is no different.

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