Five years on NZ Rugby is still tackling mental health with Headfirst

An initiative launched five years ago to tackle mental health and wellbeing in the rugby community is making good progress, NZ Rugby says.

Headfirst, which started in 2017, was seeing good evidence that it was making a difference, said NZ Rugby’s culture and wellbeing manager Nathan Price.

He said they had noticed conversations had been shifting and there had been a breaking down of the masculine stereotype.

Five years since its launch, Headfirst says conversations are shifting in the rugby community and the

Thomas Busby/Stuff

Five years since its launch, Headfirst says conversations are shifting in the rugby community and the “masculine stereotype” is being broken down. (file photo)

Headfirst used evaluation sheets before and after workshops, and had seen some “really cool changes”, particularly in the willingness for people to seek help after they left a workshop, he said.

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Mental health is a national issue among young men in New Zealand.

Rugby effectively dealt with and employed the highest risk group for mental health in New Zealand, including young men and a high proportion of Māori and Pasifika, Price said.

The Ministry of Health’s suicide data for young men showed suspected suicides had decreased in the 15-24 age group from 103 in 2018/19 to 74 in 2020/21, but had continued to increase in the 25-44 age group from 157 in 2018 /19 f to 186 in 2020/21.

Price said Headfirst came about because NZ Rugby recognized they could do more, and wanted to do more.

Headfirst had recently started introducing leadership groups within community clubs by training a group of five to eight people, so they could be wellbeing champions in their club.

Ponsonby Rugby Club has held Headfirst workshops.  (file photo)

Andrew Cornaga/

Ponsonby Rugby Club has held Headfirst workshops. (file photo)

“The idea is to upskill people in their own environment to look after their own people,” he said.

If there had been a suicide within a club’s community, the clubs were reaching out to Headfirst on how to help their players through that difficult time, he said.

It had been really hard for Headfirst to get player ambassadors, but now players were feeling comfortable enough to get in contact to share their story in order to help others.

Price said Headfirst had seen clubs take on their own initiatives, for example Te Puna Rugby Football Club in Bay of Plenty used the Headfirst workshop as part of a wider mental health session.

Auckland’s Ponsonby Rugby Club has taken part in Headfirst workshops seen a difference in its community.

It had created an environment where people felt comfortable to talk and share and were able to be vulnerable around others, said Mark Hooper, general manager at Ponsonby Rugby Club.

In the past, mental health used to be swept under the carpet, but it’s not hidden behind the curtain any more, he said.

As New Zealanders we haven’t been good at talking, which was reflected in the statistics, he said.

Hooper said it’s great NZ Rugby had been putting mental health awareness in the public space.

People are able to go to the Headfirst website if they are needing help, wanting to learn how to help others or for education resources around mental health.

Where to get help

  • 1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 to talk to a trained counselor.
  • Mental Health Foundation 09 623 4812, click here to access its free resource and information service.
  • Web chat, email chat or free text 5626
  • If it’s an emergency, click here to find the number for your local crisis assessment team.
  • In a life-threatening situation, call 111.

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