New Zealand Rugby Initiative ‘Headfirst’ to Support Mental Health

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Keven Mealamu used to take care of business on the rugby field. But since retiring from footy, he is now more concerned with taking care of his mates. He is the spokesman for an new initiative from New Zealand Rugby called Headfirst.

Released this morning, it is an online help service for members of the public to focus on Mental Health. A community driven project, which looks at both sportspeople and family, to offer support and tools to deal with many common issues today, at the grassroots level right through to Super Rugby and post-rugby.

New Zealand Rugby Initiative ‘Headfirst’ to Support Mental Health

The Headfirst website went live today at 11:30am and is a portal for the public to access, with the supportive message that “I’m talking about it.”

New Zealand Rugby (NZR) is stepping up to help address New Zealand’s high rates of mental illness and the stigma associated with getting help with the launch of a website and social media campaign targeting the rugby community’s mental health.

Fronted by NZR ambassador Mealamu, former Blues and current Sunwolves player Liaki Moli, Junior All Black James McGougan, and former International referee Chris Pollock. Each has a direct message on many mental health factors; depression, anxiety and mental fitness.

Being ‘mentally fit’ can mean different things to different people, but for most it’s about being able to live your life with freedom and enjoyment. Coping with life’s ups and downs, recognising your potential, adapting to change and achieving your goals, are all key factors to being mentally fit.

Mental Welfare Plays a Big Part in Society

“Rugby plays a huge role in the fabric of our community and culture. Over 170,000 Kiwis play rugby, coach and referee. Hundreds of thousands more are volunteers, parents and fans.  Rugby is engrained in our communities and by default contributes to mental health statistics,” says NZR Education Manager Dr Nathan Price.

New Zealand has sobering statistics around mental health in which one in five kiwis experience mental illness each year and our youth suicide rate is one of the highest in the OECD.

“Rugby is in a unique position to contribute to the conversation around mental health and wellbeing. There is a perception that rugby players are tough and asking for help is a sign of weakness. Our campaign is explicitly about breaking that down. Asking for help is actually incredibly courageous and very tough.

“We can help to shift perceptions by asking rugby players to talk about these issues and show people who look up to them that mental health and wellbeing are best dealt with by being open and seeking help.”

High Risk Groups, the Target for Headfirst

“This campaign is especially important for rugby because we work with a number of high risk groups. A large number of rugby players are young men. 75 percent of mental health issues start before the age of 25 and the male suicide rate is 19-per 100,000 compared to the female rate of 6-per 100,000.

“Our aim is to get the Headfirst website and resources in front of as many within the rugby community as possible. Improving mental health literacy and awareness is the first step in tackling the problem. Once awareness is raised people are much more likely to seek help.

“We are excited to use our position of influence in New Zealand, especially with young men, to make a real difference and reduce the stigma around mental health and wellbeing.”

Headfirst Will Support Other NZR Strategies

In 2016, the focus on player support and gender equality was placed high on the list for NZR. This was built-in to improve on; and react to, issues that were reported in the news. Last Word On Rugby covered the issues last October when the announcement was made that NZR would place a high focus on Respect & Responsibility.

That statement covered not only players health and welfare, but families and education, for sports men and women. Today’s announcement goes one step further, in a complete holistic view of how rugby can support it’s stakeholders.

New Zealand Rugby Union representatives posewith Cure Kids Ambassadors during the New Zealand Rugby Union Cure Kids announcement at the Pullman Hotel on April 11, 2012  (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

This also works beside the RugbySmart program which gives players good advice on their physical health. Now, through the Headfirst initiative, the rugby-public can be engaged and given the advice, support and tools and coping mechanisms, to deal with mental health.

“It’s awesome that the rugby union has taken an initiative like this and we can take it to everyone.”

NZR have established many relationships in the community, with leading All Blacks like Mealamu, Richie McCaw and Sonny Bill Williams all performing community acts to show that reach out to wider audience than just those who watch or are active in the game. Cure Kids (see above picture) is one, as well as Red Nose Day, on top of community rugby, SmallBlacks and the recent ‘Register for Rugby’ drive.

Mealamu the Perfect Ambassador for Public Awareness

Mealamu; who played 133 test for the All Blacks, is respected by many, and his work now is focused on establishing support-structures for not only sports people, but their families and the community.

A social media and public campaign will now broadcast the message across all regions. This will include New Zealand, but will likely see benefits in the Pacific islands, where the online tools may be the first step for players and family to reach out for help.

If anything, the Headfirst program will firstly want to begin a conversation. Like the Lift the Weight campaign by the Rugby Players’ Association in the United Kingdom (fronted by NZ-born player Jono Kitto), it can put the subject out in the open. “I’m talking about it” will be the message issued by Mealamu, Dr Price and members of the sports community. It is OK to ask for help, and the benefits from Headfirst will ultimately aim to help all members of society.


For more information on Headfirst, visit or your family doctor.

“Main photo credit”