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John Kirwan on his new mental health app, Mentemia
John Kirwan on his new mental health app, Mentemia

BusinessApril 15, 2020

The virtual mental health coach to help you get through lockdown angst

John Kirwan on his new mental health app, Mentemia
John Kirwan on his new mental health app, Mentemia

With more New Zealanders feeling isolated, anxious and stressed from the Covid-19 effect, the need to take a moment and establish a sense of calm has never been more important. That’s where a new free app can help.

In late 2018, when mental health advocate and All Black legend Sir John Kirwan launched his company Mentemia, his plan was to use artificial intelligence to help fight what he called at the time a mental health pandemic. Now his Mentemia app is being launched during another kind of pandemic – one that is having an immense impact on mental health.

Developed by a team of clinical experts, Mentemia was originally designed to help tackle stress and anxiety in the workplace. The idea was that businesses would pay for a subscription for their employees to use. Now, with Covid-19 casting a shadow over the whole country, the plan has changed. With support from the Ministry of Health, Kiwibank and Westpac, the app is now available for free to all New Zealanders until at least October 2020.

Mentemia, which means “my mind” in Italian (a language Kirwan speaks fluently), uses evidence-based research to tailor content to mental health needs, offering advice and training exercises like a virtual counsellor. It learns and responds to your preferences the more you use it, coaching you about how the mind has a tendency to create stress and anxiety, and the simple tools you can use to let them go.

In partnership with the Ministry of Health, the app will be used to help support frontline health workers and government employees in essential services, many of whom are experiencing increased stress at this time.

Meanwhile Kiwibank is rolling out the enterprise version of Mentemia to its staff this week. As essential workers, many of Kiwibank’s staff are on the front line of Covid-19’s economic rampage, dealing with customers who have lost their jobs and are facing extreme hardship.

New Zealand’s unemployment rate is currently at 4.2%, However, according to Treasury, this could increase to anywhere between 10% and 26% depending on how long the lockdown lasts. With thousands of jobs on the line, Kiwibank chief people officer Leigh MacDonald says the Mentemia app is coming at a critical time.

“I think we’ve all seen there’s an increase in anxiety, uncertainty and stress in our lives,” he says. “People are looking for some balance. They’re looking to try to maintain some normal routines: things like sleep, nutrition, and exercise, and I think that’s something Mentemia really brings: really good practical advice.”

Chief people officer at Kiwibank Leigh MacDonald. Photo: Supplied

As the chief of people, MacDonald’s job is to take care of the staff who take care of the customers. Since the lockdown started, those employees, including banking leaders and call centre staff, have been primarily assisting customers whose lives have been upended. He says the app will better help Kiwibank to support those customers.

“We’re having some quite tough conversations with people around their home loans and how are they are going to pay for those when things are changing and perhaps incomes not coming in. We’re also talking with business owners about how are they going to keep their businesses going through this period and how they can come out of it with some sense of momentum.”

Kiwibank is no newcomer to the mental health conversation. The bank has long been dedicated to promoting awareness of the issue through its support of initiatives like Gumboot Friday.

“We see [Mentemia] as a natural extension of our commitment to mental health awareness, but it’s particularly relevant given the times that we’re facing,” MacDonald says.

The app is simple, and that’s what makes it effective. When you first sign in it asks what areas in your life you want to address, and then suggests content based on your preferences. You can also search for specific content or explore the library for a wide range of tips and mental health information. Your data is private and is only used by the app to personalise content.

It includes a training section with an interactive tool to learn conscious breathing, which has been shown to have a powerful calming effect on the body’s parasympathetic nervous system and stress response.

Another tool is the “kindness wheel,” which asks you to commit to a small act of kindness, while explaining that such gestures release the hormone oxytocin, improving self-esteem and energy levels. These pieces of “brain science” give the clinical theory behind each exercise, and a virtual John Kirwan himself is at hand in small videos providing instructions for each tool.

“It gives people a better understanding of the triggers that make them stressed or anxious, the little things they can do to improve their mental wellbeing, and what is really cool is it also helps you learn how to help others,” Kirwan says.

Kirwan’s frank conversations about his own depression were a vital catalyst in removing the stigma from conversations about mental health in New Zealand. He remains deeply invested in looking after his mental health, and he says that starts with appreciating the individual moments of his day.

“I have a daily mental health plan. I do a few little things every day, and now I’m thriving. That’s where Mentemia comes in. It’s like having a personalised mental health coach in your pocket.”

Kirwan says the best way to use the app is briefly but regularly, applying its tools to strengthen your mind and find calm and clarity in a stressful situation. As he told The Spinoff in 2019, one of the keys to dealing with anxiety and depression is taking the time to appreciate small pleasures.

“[Each morning] I make myself a mocha and really sit down and enjoy that. It’s about stopping; mindfulness is staying in the present. The most important thing for your mental health is when you are doing something, stop and do it.”

Mentemia is available for download on Google Play for Android or the App Store for iPhone.

This content was created in paid partnership with Kiwibank. Learn more about our partnerships here

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