29 May 2024

I am Hope's Mike King lashes 'dickheads throwing shit' over charity funding

3:01 pm on 29 May 2024

Mike King says he was challenged by Māori school students about taking money from Winston Peters - but told them he'd "take money from Gollum" if it meant funding more mental health services for young people.

Appearing on 30 With Guyon Espiner, the comedian-turned-mental health advocate said he'd had a stressful week copping flak from critics over the $24 million funding his charity I Am Hope received from the Government.

King said he visited Mana College and spoke to students at the marae.

"[They] challenged me on accepting money from Winston Peters. 'Why are you doing this?' And I explained to them that if Gollum gave me $24 million [for mental health services,] I would give it."

King says the students then discussed their own mental health issues with him - an experience which gave him purpose.

"It gives me the drive and all the dickheads out there that are throwing shit at me - it doesn't mean anything to me. It's what the kids come and tell me that matters above all else. That's how I fill my cup."

Mike King

Mike King at last week's funding announcement at Parliament Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

In a pre-Budget announcement, Peters and National's Mental Health Minister Matt Doocey announced $24 million in funding over four years to the charity to provide 15,000 New Zealanders aged 5-25 with free mental health counselling services.

After the announcement, it was revealed the chair of King's I Am Hope Foundation Naomi Ballantyne had donated $27,000 to the National Party and its just-departed CEO had sought National candidacy for Botany in 2019.

King said he'd known nothing about those political connections. He'd previously battled with bureaucrats at the Ministry of Health to get funding for his charity, rather than with politicians.

"I have never met a politician I haven't liked and I've never met a bureaucrat that I have."

King said he'd forged relationships with politicians from across the spectrum and former Labour Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had provided $600,000 to I Am Hope.

"I am not here to support political parties. I've never donated. I'm here for the kids," he said.

"Do you think a 62-year-old man wants to walk around in a mullet? No, I'm trying to raise $50,000 for our kids. I will wear a dress for a month, if that means I get $50,000 for our kids."

King said the $24 million over four years would allow I Am Hope to provide 160,000 free counselling sessions

Since the start of Gumboot Friday, the group had provided 92,000 sessions for $13 million at an average cost of about $147 per session.

There are currently 555 counsellors on the platform and the new funding would add another 300.

* 30 with Guyon Espiner comes out every week on RNZ, Youtube, TVNZ+ and wherever you get your podcasts.

'I realised my words killed'

King was a high-profile comedian but came to realise his style of humour, which he described as aggressive, misogynistic and homophobic, was doing damage.

He recalled visiting a school in Northland, after several students had taken their lives.

One of the boys was a Māori student who had grown up around gangs.

"He goes, 'first off, I'm gay'. I go, well, that must be tough. You know, me making an assumption that growing up in gang Northland, staunch Northland, and you're gay, that it must be really tough. And he went, 'I'm sweet with being gay. I'm okay.' So [I asked him] what's the problem?

"He goes: 'Every time I hear the word f.....t, homo, gayboy, p.....r - even from my friends who love me - I think, 'this is how the world sees me, and what's the point?'"

The student's statement had a profound effect on King, who was at the time one of the most highly paid comedians in New Zealand.

"Not only was I telling [those kinds of] jokes, I was saying them on radio, television, onstage and actively encouraging everyone else to say those words as a joke. And it was the first time that I realised my words killed, and I vowed from that day, I was going to change.

"There was no way I was going to go back and do that anymore."

Mike King in studio with Guyon Espiner for '30 with Guyon Espiner'.

Mike King in animated conversation with RNZ's Guyon Espiner Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

King said he's been visiting schools for 13 years and listened to the feedback from around 250,000 young people. He said 40 percent of students will have "a major crisis associated with some type of suicidal thinking" while at school, but 80 percent of them don't ask for help.

I Am Hope offers free counselling sessions to children and young people aged from 5 to 25.

When asked if there was a danger of the scheme encroaching on parent-child relationships, particularly in younger children, King said the biggest source of anxiety in young children under 10 was still the fear of tension between parents, even in schools dealing with gangs, drugs and other social issues.

"The number one reason kids in South Auckland schools are going to a counsellor is the interaction between Mum and Dad, 'what happens to me if they split up?'

"They're more terrified of being put in a house in Remuera, than they are staying [in a tense family situation,] which tells you one thing, our kids can live with anything, as long as they are together as a family.

"After talking to over 250,000 young people, what they have been saying to us constantly is, we would like to talk about our little problems. But not talk to our parents about them, someone neutral.

"We are trying to change counselling from being seen as mental health intervention, to just the conversation."

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