New Zealand
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Sir John Kirwan in drive to raise $1m for school mental health initiative

NZME’s Great Minds project will examine the state of our nation’s mental health and explore the growing impact mental health and anxiety has on Kiwis while searching for ways to improve it. Video / NZ Herald

NZME’s Great Minds project will examine the state of our nation’s mental health and explore the growing impact mental health and anxiety has on Kiwis while searching for ways to improve it. Video / NZ Herald

Sixty per cent of people in a new survey commissioned by Sir John Kirwan said the country isn't doing enough to improve the mental wellbeing of children.

The former All Black and mental health advocate is launching a national campaign to raise $1 million to expand an initiative that aims to educate primary school children about protecting emotional wellbeing.

Mitey, developed by Kirwan's charitable foundation in conjunction with academics at the University of Auckland, teaches resilience to children in Years 1-8 in around 70 schools, mainly in Auckland. Kirwan wants to expand it to another 40 around the country.

"We've got to start thinking about [mental health] prevention," he told the Herald. "We've got to start giving our children the tools that they need to deal with this modern world.

"Unless we equip our kids with this, I don't think the stats are going to get any better."

To coincide with the fundraising campaign, Kirwan's foundation conducted a poll of 1,000 adults. Three-quarters say they're concerned that children now are at greater risk of mental health problems than previous generations.

Kirwan's initiative comes amid growing concern about escalating rates of serious mental health problems among children and young people, including anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm and suicidal thinking.

Rates of mental illness and psychological distress among the young were already increasing before Covid-19 and have accelerated since the pandemic, researchers and frontline clinicians say, causing anguish for young people and their families and putting pressure on schools and health providers.

This week, the Herald reported that specialist mental health services run by district health boards for children and teenagers are so underfunded and understaffed that they can't keep pace with the growing need.

According to a government briefing document obtained as part of an investigation into the mental health system, the number of young people taken to emergency departments in acute distress has jumped by 177 per cent in the last decade.

But the DHB services say they don't have the capacity to see everyone who needs their help. Many families with unwell children are forced instead to pull together whatever support they can get from GPs, charities, schools and other community organisations.

While specialist services urgently need more funding and staff, Kirwan says preventative initiatives like his will also be crucial to resolving the crisis, by reducing over time the number of young people who develop a severe problem that needs specialist attention.

"We can't wait until the ambulance is at the bottom of the cliff," he says. "We want to put up a fence at the top of the cliff and then move that fence back."

Kirwan says children should be taught how to cope with adversity early, because mental health problems are likely to emerge by the time they're nine or 10.

"The tools and techniques need to be learnt by the time they get to secondary school, because that's actually when they need to start implementing it."

Mitey's approach is to teach mental health resilience as part of the school curriculum, alongside subjects such as maths and science, not just to give them one-off learning materials. The money will go towards paying for coaches to go into schools and educate teachers on how to embed the lessons into their daily routines.

There are numerous mental health programmes in schools around the country, including the Mana Ake counselling initiative for which the Government allocated $90 million in its 2022 Budget in May.

But they are fragmented and not consistently available across all schools around the country.

Eventually, Kirwan wants Mitey to be available in all primary schools in New Zealand - increasing its current coverage more than ten-fold - but he would need financial backing from other philanthropists or the Government to pay for it.

"That would take a few years to ramp up, I believe, at our current speed, and then in five to 10 years we'd be starting to see some real solid results."

In July, Kirwan will be doing community events to raise awareness of mental health issues in Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Napier, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill.


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

For counselling and support

Lifeline: Call 0800 543 354 or text 4357 (HELP)

Suicide Crisis Helpline: Call 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

Need to talk? Call or text 1737

Depression helpline: Call 0800 111 757 or text 4202

For children and young people

Youthline: Call 0800 376 633 or text 234

What's Up: Call 0800 942 8787 (11am to 11pm) or webchat (11am to 10.30pm)

The Lowdown: Text 5626 or webchat

For help with specific issues

Alcohol and Drug Helpline: Call 0800 787 797

Anxiety Helpline: Call 0800 269 4389 (0800 ANXIETY)

OutLine: Call 0800 688 5463 (0800 OUTLINE) (6pm-9pm)

Safe to talk (sexual harm): Call 0800 044 334 or text 4334

All services are free and available 24/7 unless otherwise specified.

For more information and support, talk to your local doctor, hauora, community mental health team, or counselling service. The Mental Health Foundation has more helplines and service contacts on its website.