This weekend’s round of the Mitre 10 Cup is focused on promoting awareness of mental health to help address New Zealand’s high rates of mental illness and reduce the stigma associated with getting help, ahead of New Zealand Mental Health Awareness Week next week, 9-15 October.

Earlier this year New Zealand Rugby (NZR) launched the www.headfirst.co.nz website and social media campaign that offers players, parents, coaches, referees, volunteers and supporters a resource to get information about mental fitness, mental health and wellbeing.

Kicking off tonight with the Canterbury v Taranaki Ranfurly Shield match, all Mitre 10 Cup games will have Head First signage on the playing field and Angus Ta'avao (Taranaki) Ryan Tongia (Southland), Ryan Coxon (Tasman) Dan Bowden (Auckland) and Bryn Hall (North Harbour) will be stepping up as spokespeople for the campaign via their team’s social media channels.

NZR Education Manager, Dr Nathan Price, said New Zealand has sobering statistics around mental health 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.

“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 Head First website and resources in front of as many within the rugby community as possible. Breaking down the stigma associated with mental health and getting people talking about it is the first step in tackling the problem.”

Mental Health Foundation CE, Shaun Robinson, says it’s great to see New Zealand Rugby helping to break down the stigma around seeking help.

“Asking for help is one of the bravest things anyone can do. When people open up they find that friends, whānau and team mates are in their corner and are more than willing to support them. Having those courageous conversations undoubtedly saves lives.”

Southland Stag winger, Ryan Tongia, says he’s grateful to be able to help raise awareness of mental health and support Head First.

“Mental health is a key part in our overall health, and it's something that isn't developed or discussed enough. Mental health to me is a state of well-being, which allows me to realise my emotions at the present time and ability to perform while feeling a particular way. It also allows me to cope with the normal stresses of life. “One in five New Zealanders will suffer from some form of stress, anxiety or depression in any year, we also have one of the highest suicide rates in the world and the statistics are particularly bad for our Maori and Pacific men. The rugby community is no different in terms of these statistics so let’s talk about it. If I can help raise awareness and encourage other young players both female and male to talk about their issues and worries or their emotions, then hopefully that's what this does.”

Mental health is a key part in our overall health, and it's something that isn't developed or discussed enough. Mental health to me is a state of well-being, which allows me to realise my emotions at the present time and ability to perform while feeling a particular way. It also allows me to cope with the normal stresses of life