16 Jun 2021

Mental health hikoi: Mike King hands back order of merit medal in protest

From Checkpoint, 5:23 pm on 16 June 2021

Mental health funding has failed - that's the message from mental health advocate and entertainment personality Mike King.

- Video by Dom Thomas

Today, more than 100 people walked beside him in a hīkoi from Te Papa to Parliament, as he handed back his prestigious New Zealand Order of Merit medal.

King was in tears as he thanked supporters on their arrival.

"Thank you for coming, and thank you for honouring this silence. I just want you to know there are people out there like me that care, we care!"

He received the honour in 2019, for services to mental health awareness and suicide prevention.

He tried to explain his reasons for returning the honour.

"Everyone's asking me how I feel about giving the medal back. I feel nothing about giving the medal back but I feel just a profound sense of sadness that no one's listening, it's not fair." 

Mike King outside Parliament

Mike King outside Parliament. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Then, with his wife and daughter in tow, he handed his medal to Michael Webster, the secretary and registrar of the New Zealand Order of Merit.  

Webster thanked King for bringing it back.

"I'd just like to acknowledge the reasons why you got this ... your service to the country as recognised by the Queen, and that's what this was and I appreciate and acknowledge and understand and respect why you're giving it back."

Some of the people who joined the hīkoi spoke of their own challenges.

Allan Davidson lost his daughter as she struggled with mental health.

"We lost a daughter four and a half years ago, and I just talked to some people that I know coming up here today, they lost a son a year ago and I just said to them 'I wish I could tell you it got easier' but here I am, they're a year down, I'm four and a half years down, and it can be like yesterday and there's always triggers."

Many hugged King as he handed back his medal - Davidson described it as hugging an icon.

"It was kind of hard to let go and I think he found the same. Obviously, we've both been there and yeah ... it must be like hugging Richie McCaw but at a different level." 

King argued the government's billion-dollar investment in mental health over the last few years had been wasted.

"It hasn't improved anything, in fact, it's actually made it worse because there's an expectation from families now that the help's going to be there and it's just not."

Over 100 people walked from Te Papa to Parliament.

More than 100 people walked from Te Papa to Parliament. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said he had a "different view".

"I am confident, I think if you look at the responses the minister's given recently you will see that there is a lot of money going out the door. There's been a lot of work over the last three to six months to put in place new contracts with new providers that are coming on board from July." 

Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission acting chief executive Karen Orsborn admitted the message from the community was change was not happening fast enough or evenly across the country.

She insisted it was happening under the recommendations from He Ara Oranga, a report from a government inquiry.

"System transformation does take time. So when we're wanting to have new and different types of services, particularly when we prioritise development of more kaupapa Māori services, Pacific services, peer-led services, then actually working with communities to co-design those services together, what the services will look like and how they'll be provided, that engagement takes time."

She said it was not for her to comment on King's return of the honour.

"There's no doubt that Mike is a strong advocate, but it's early days for us and our focus is on the work ahead."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she stood by the decision to give King the honour, but said she never suggested the work to improve mental health services was finished.

"There is a lot of work left for us to do as a nation, and that includes supporting people who are struggling with mental health issues. But this is ultimately Mike's decision and I respect that." 

In a statement, the Ministry of Health deputy director-general of mental health and addiction Toni Gutschlag said there was help available for people that needed it.

"The government is two years into a large programme of work to improve mental health and wellbeing in New Zealand. The government has already rolled out a significant number of services around the country that are already making a difference to thousands of people every month."

She said this included investing in youth-specific mental health and wellbeing services, $1 million to Youthline, and over 195 GPs in the country having a mental health professional in the practice.

Budget 2019 also provided funding to expand school-based health services to all publicly funded decile 5 schools, providing coverage for an additional 21,000 students.

Where to get help:

Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason. 
Lifeline: 0800 543 354  or text HELP to 4357
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.
Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) or text 4202
Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz
What's Up: online chat (3pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 helpline (12pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-11pm weekends)
Kidsline (ages 5-18): 0800 543 754 (24/7) 
Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254
Healthline: 0800 611 116
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.