Sir John Kirwan has tirelessly campaigned for mental health awareness since admitting his own battle with depression which began three decades ago. As part of these efforts, Kirwan has announced that he’s assembling a world-class team of mental health professionals as well as creative and technical experts who will help him use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to “change the mental health game” across NZ and globally. “With some help, everyone can be a little bit better every day. AI is a powerful tool to help make this happen,” comments Kirwan.

To do this, Kirwan has announced that he will partner with AI company UneeQ, a leading provider of AI-powered ‘Digital Humans’. Using UneeQ’s Intelligent Digital Human platform, Kirwan and his team will design personalised, AI-powered digital mental health ‘coaches’ who can be integrated into mental health care programmes – a world-first.

“For many people struggling with their mental health, going to see a specialist comes with fear of the unknown, anxiety or is difficult due to a lack of finances,” explains Kirwan. In stark contrast, new research suggests that roughly 65% of people would not mind talking to an AI-powered Digital Human (avatar) about their mental health because they would never pass judgement. “I know if I had my own personal digital mental health ‘coach’ and it had the knowledge I needed to help me get better, that’s a tool I would want to investigate.”

These digital mental health ‘coaches’ will understand their user’s unique needs and preferences and be able to give advice around everyday problems people all over the world face – sleep difficulties, anxiety, stress, dealing with conflict – whatever aspect of your mental health you want to improve. “They will provide information that can help anyone access a pathway to getting well again,” says Danny Tomsett, UneeQ’s CEO. Tomsett adds: “The personal digital mental health ‘coaches’ will combine cutting-edge machine learning with human-like qualities to offer engaging, meaningful conversation and advice to users.”

New ways of handling the pandemic

As the ‘face’ of depression in New Zealand, Kirwan’s books All Blacks don’t cry and Stand by me as well as his website,, have been instrumental in getting more people both in New Zealand and globally to ask for help. But if “The John Kirwan effect” has led to an increase in people asking for help, it has also highlighted that mental health services haven’t kept pace with growing demand.

“Although Government has a mental health strategy, help is often not immediate enough. My lightbulb moment happened after someone told me there won’t be enough counsellors or psychiatrists to cope with today’s mental health challenges. Imagine if, using Artificial Intelligence, we could deliver something world-class and world-changing,” says Kirwan.

“The UneeQ team is passionate about harnessing the power of AI to shape a better future. It’s an issue they care deeply about and together, we’ll develop a solution aimed at supporting those with mental health challenges in an immediate and personalised way. No waiting. No being turned away because you don’t meet the threshold for care.”

Taking the fear out of it  

“I want to be the guinea pig – I want to be part of this development so that I know where it’s at, can give advice about how it could work better and be part of the growth. I want to do some investigating and, hopefully, take the fear out of it so that others won’t be afraid to leverage it as a tool as well.”

On the question of removing the human touch, Kirwan is firm: “I am not advocating removing the human touch. But – we should be talking about mental health on a daily basis and we aren’t. Having different pathways to getting better is important and this is one with potentially incredible reach. It will further democratise access to mental health, knowledge, understanding and assistance. I am convinced that with this initiative, we will help people understand that mental health should be just as much a part of our everyday as physical health. Through this, we will remove much of the stigma that surrounds the illness, normalise it and make everyone a little better every day.”

Two months ago, New Zealand’s suicide rates rose for the fourth consecutive year to 668 deaths. Local and global research suggests that 1 in 5 people need help with their mental health. This is the pandemic. It is the biggest health issue we face and there simply aren’t enough resources to deal with it.

NZ is his primary focus, but Kirwan has his sights set further afield: “We have a pandemic on our hands. Anxiety and stress are at an all-time high. We have to get ahead of the curve, not just in New Zealand, but globally as well. Together with UneeQ, we can change the game!”

Kirwan’s vision is for the product to be made available by employers to their staff as a “gift”, no strings attached. He is currently working with some of New Zealand’s biggest employers as foundation customers. He expects to launch the product in 2019.

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