John Kirwan is a former All Black and best selling author. He is also a dad to teenagers, and he admits that scares him. His new book, Stand By Me confronts the big questions facing parents and teens, highlighting key messages and offering best approaches with the goal of helping them live positively and develop resilience. Kirwan’s voice is joined in the book by clinical psychologists Dr Elliot Bell and Kirsty Louden-Bell and teenagers who have been diagnosed with mental health issues who share their viewpoint.
What made you decide to write this book?
New Zealand has the highest teenage suicide rate in the developed world, and for me it was a combination of being a parent and just realising that depression is an illness and becoming more and more common. So as a parent, if I can understand it a bit better, and understand the signs and try, as a parent, to create resilience in my kids and just make it acceptable so it doesn’t become such a crisis and it just becomes an illness.
You’ve written about your depression in your earlier book All Blacks Don’t Cry. Do you look back at yourself as a teenager and see any signs?
One of the things I talk about in the book is being homesick in Hunua, I was 10 or 11, and whether that was the first sign of being a bit anxious, but for me [anxiety] hit me around [age] 19/20. But the thing that appeals to me is having awareness around so that if it does happen it’s okay and you know how to deal with it. More so than why did it happen, when did it happen? So if we can teach our kids and adolescents and teenagers resilience to say that it’s okay then they might not fall into the hole.
What do you hope the book will achieve?
Information really. I’m pretty curious and although I’ve been through it I didn’t really know how to parent it. I’d had a lot of parents ringing me absolutely distraught that their teenager might be going through something. I was able to have a chat to them and normalise it so I guess the aim of the book is just getting information out there into people’s hands and explain through other peoples experiences, not just mine. And really give people some tools to accept it, create resilience and possibly parent it a bit better.
It was a smart idea to collaborate with teens and add their voice to the book. Was that something you wanted to do from the very beginning with this book in terms of finding people to collaborate with?
Yes, definitely. It was really important to get teenagers from different walks of life, and their perception on it. And also with Kirsty and Elliott providing an expert look at it as well. So if you read it you can try and understand how the kids are feeling but also have some practical tools to parent it.
As an adult or parent, what opened your eyes most when researching this book?
I think the most interesting thing for me was when I talked to the teenagers about communicating with them, as I’ve got teenage kids and I’m always asking them how they are and I get one syllable answers. For me it was really a case of learning about just being there, that you need to be there to listen when they’re ready, not when you’re ready. And it always seems to be when I’m ready. I come home from work and say ‘how’s it going mate?’ ‘Good’. ‘How was school?’ ‘Good’. How’s that careers thing you did? ‘Yeah, too many questions Dad’. So it’s a situation where I learned that I have to listen for the right moments rather than try and force it.
Why do you think New Zealand has such a high teen suicide rate?
I think there’s a series of things we need to be aware of. And I think it’s important it’s not just one thing. In certain areas there’s low socioeconomic, … also not understanding the new world and what that looks like. I think there is a lot of pressure on our kids also from a social and alcohol point of view. So I don’t think there is any one answer to that and the reality is it an affect anyone from any walk of life. It’s not prejudiced. So I think that’s the most important thing that we need to create an awareness around it and acceptance of it. Just make it normal rather than this massive hole you get into.
You talk about stigma in this book. Your courage to speak out publicly about your depression was courageous and inspirational and has helped so many people. What inspired you to speak out?
It was just such a scary time for me that it was important for me that I helped one person and that’s the idea of the new book. It’s really just about getting information into people’s hands so that they can either parent it better or have knowledge around it as teachers. So for me it’s just all about knowledge and helping. If I can help one person, if I can help one parent maybe identify that their child is not too well and they can intervene and help, then that’s the aim really.
You talking about these issues has helped remove a lot of sigma around depression as a mental illness, though it still exists. There’s the attitude to just harden up and push through it and for many people the idea of seeking therapy is too scary.
It’s an illness, not a weakness. The most important thing is wellness, not what people will think. You go and get the help. You go and get well. You do whatever you want to do with it. You’re in charge of it and you can tell people you’re going for the flu and go and see a doctor.
What steps can one take to minimise the reoccurrence of depression?
For me I always yell at the top of the treetops that wellness is every day. So I do something for myself every day so that it doesn’t mount up on me. And when I say every day, when I’m incredibly well I might leave it few days but I normally do something for my wellness every day. I think your wellness is number one because then you cope with everything in life a lot easier.
Having suffered from depression yourself, what would be your message to others battling depression?
Acceptance, awareness and wellness. They’re the biggest things for me. People accepting it, awareness of it in yourself and in others, and wellness.