29 May 2024

Mike King: I'd take money from Gollum if it meant better mental health services

From 30 with Guyon Espiner, 3:00 pm on 29 May 2024

Mike King once described himself as an aggressive, politically incorrect, foul-mouthed, standup comedian. Now, he's one of the most high profile mental health advocates in Aotearoa. 

In Budget 2024 his charity I am Hope got $24 million to provide free counselling for young people. There’s now a political fight about how the money was awarded. 

Guyon Espiner sits down with Mike to ask about that and bigger questions over whether we have a mental health crisis in Aotearoa and how we should deal with it. 

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The aim of I Am Hope is to “forever change the way New Zealanders think, act and feel about mental health and suicide.” How so? 

"And drive positive societal attitudinal change. And that's the key. Our whole Kaupapa is about changing the way people think, act and feel."  

"I've been speaking to schools for the last 13 years. I've listened to over 250,000 young people. And here's what I know. 40% of kids in school will have a major crisis associated with some type of suicidal thinking before they leave school. Not in their lifetime - before they leave school.  

Which is staggering to a whole lot of people. Guess what? It's normal. We've all had the thought. If you haven't left the house at least once in your life going, what's the point? You're living in a marshmallow." 

"The stat that scares me is, 80% of those kids never ask for help. And the reason they never ask for help is because they're worried about what other people will think, say or do. And what's our message to young people who are travelling that journey? Reach out and ask for help! Excuse me?! “I've just told you, I'm scared of sharks. And your solution is to go swim with sharks, and maybe a dolphin will come along!”  

So, what needs to change is, we all need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, what am I doing to make it more comfortable for young people to reach out and ask for help?" 

"And the answer to that is, we're not doing enough. We're busy telling kids what to do, this is what you need to do. We need to start showing them vulnerability."  

What will this new $24 million funding allow I Am Hope to do?  

"160,000 free counselling sessions is basically what it's going to allow us to do. And it's critical. So, since the inception of Gumboot Friday, we have delivered 92,000 sessions at a cost of $13 million. That's about an average of $147 per session."  

"This will allow us to bring more counsellors onto the platform. Currently, we've got 555. We kept it at 555 because when we had more than that the money went out too quickly. So, this is going to help us expand our reach. There's about 300 more counsellors. We've got 350 on the waiting list, and we will gradually introduce them in." 

Let's talk a little bit about how this works. The young person can look at the practitioners available, and they choose them themselves. Why is that? 

"When we originally started, we had a whole lot of counsellors there and the kids just went along with their mums and dads went along and chose." 

"Phase two of the operation was, we did user-testing. We went out to the kids and asked them, what do you want to see? Our whole database is user-centric. It's not there for counsellors, it's not there for their mums and dads, it is there for the kids.  

And they told us they want to see the counsellors, a description of what they do, and an understanding of some of the diagnoses they thought they had."  

"For example, if you hover over the depression button, there is a drop-down menu and it explains in simple terms what depression, alcohol issues, body image issues, all look like. And then the onboarding platform filters out the counsellors." 

You have two sessions funded through your scheme. What happens after that?  

"So last year we delivered 8,600 sessions at a cost of $31,400, which literally is about 3.5 sessions [per person.] We send the sessions out in two session blocks. Any child that needs more, the counsellor can refer back and get allocated another two. Why do we do that? When we first started, we were giving out 10 sessions, so people felt comfortable."  

Is their a cap on the number of free sessions provided? 

"There are some people out there that do six, some do eight..." 

And are those sessions all fully funded?  

"Fully funded. We're not turning anyone away. We don't advertise these things, but it clearly states two sessions, and then counsellors have discretion [to recommend more]." 

Is five too young to be discussing mental health, for the average kid? 

"That's a great question. So, here's what I can tell you. The number one mental health issue out there that kills more kids than anyone else is eating disorders."  

"Now, if you ask any normal person, like myself, why are there so many? Well, it's the internet, it's the blah, blah, blah, it's these expectations, I've got to live up to all these things.  And most people think it starts around puberty, around 12, 11."  

"Our data tells us that kids are reaching out for eating difficulties and body image at 5. It quadruples at 8, it explodes at 14 and it peaks at 18."  

"Now five-year-olds don't wake up and go oh, I've got an eating disorder. I don't like the way I look. It starts around 3. Now, this takes it away from being a social media issue and makes it an environmental issue."  

"Think about some of the things good parents say to their kids - “Guyon, put the cakes down darling, you've already had one cake today. You don't want to look like Mummy.” Or dickhead dad - “Oh, look at that fat cow. What the hell was she thinking?”  

Now, one’s being a dickhead dad, the other one's been kind and loving. What's the message the child is getting? If I look like that, you will reject me. The number one reason kids are going to see a counsellor at under 10 years old is the connection between themselves and Mum and Dad."  

"You've never heard this louder before than in lower socioeconomic South Auckland, where we are right now. We've got a Counsellors-in-Schools program in five schools in South Auckland. We've got gangs, we've got drugs, we've got poverty, we've got violence, right?"  

"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 here, which tells you one thing - our kids can live with anything, as long as they are together as a family." 

"And again, you've never seen this data. There's been no study on this. Why? Because there's no funding. All of our funding in this country is aimed at money, not the needs of our children. And we can back this up with data." 

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

Mike King in studio with Guyon Espiner for '30 with Guyon Espiner'. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

I want to talk a little bit about the process by which you got the money. We know there's some controversy and some political fighting over that.  Your chair of I Am Hope, Naomi Ballantine donated $27,000 to National. You had a just departed CEO who went for the National Party candidacy in botany in 2019. 

"Don't forget the impact report by Bill English."  

Is this all just a bit too cozy with one side of the political aisle? That's the criticism.  

"Yeah, no, I know. And I can respond to that easily. On April the 27th [last year] I finished a triathlon, where we were raising awareness around mental health. We met on the steps of parliament. Chris Hipkins was apparently in Lower Hutt. He was actually digging a tree in Parliament grounds and completely ignored us. But the [now] Prime Minister came out, Christopher Luxon, and he announced that he was going to fund Gumboot Friday."  

"I stood there, it was live on camera, and I said, “you will never get it across the line. There are protocols to follow.” And he said, “if I get in, I will make sure Gumboot Friday is funded.” How he got that is none of my business."

"Now remember, in 2021, the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, bypassed the same protocol to give us $600,000." 

This time it's 6 million a year though.  

"That doesn't matter. We are dealing in semantics now."  

No, we're dealing in facts. And the fact is you’ve gotten 10 times the amount you got from Jacinda.  

"The fact is, [when Jacinda] gave us the money, she bypassed the protocols. $600,000 is a lot of money, particularly to us. And it was given to us to do whatever we like - except give it to counsellors. Isn't that weird? We weren't allowed to give the money to counsellors."  

"So, what I'm saying here, all of this was done way before Naomi Ballantine came on board. Our social impact report was done in 2021, just after Labour had won by a landslide with no chance of anyone else getting in." 

In their coalition deal with National, New Zealand First said they'd fund Gumboot Friday. Do you know how that came about?  

"No, you’ll have to ask Winston."  

What's your relationship with New Zealand First? Winston Peters, Shane Jones, all those guys? 

"Well. Shane. I've got issues with him. Anyone who uses five syllable words to ask a one syllable question, just to show everyone how intellectual he is, is a dick as far as I'm concerned. I love him though. I love him. But you know what I'm saying?"  

"So, I have a relationship with Chris Hipkins, I have a relationship with Willie Jackson, I have a relationship with [Police Commissioner Mark] Mitchell, I have cross party relationships with everyone."  

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

Do you feel that you have been forced to take sides and you're seen now as being on the centre right? You've been funded by the centre right, and you've had a scrap with the centre left.  

"Well, the same thing could be said about when I stood with Jacinda when she announced $1.9 billion [towards mental health and wellbeing] and I said, “this government has done more in five minutes than the last government did in six years.”"  

"I will fight to get kids the help they need. I'm wearing a mullet right now! 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 it means I get $50,000 for our kids. I am not here to support political parties. I've never donated, I'm here for the kids." 

Let's figure out how you got to be sitting here today. Firstly, what would the Mike King of 15-years-old have got from I Am Hope?  

"Nothing. No, I would not use it. I mean, I'm old school. You know? I was like most kids today: “Only broken people go and see a counsellor.”"  

Were you a broken kid? 

"Yeah, very. Very. I had major self-esteem issues and rejection issues."  

Is that where this comes from, your aggression?  

"Well, there are two types of people in the world, when it comes to rejection."  

"Type A's make everything about themselves. You can almost hear them thinking, "why don't people like me? It's not fair. I'm a good person.”" 

"And then there are Type B personalities: "You don't like me, Guyon? F**k you. I hate you more.”"  

"So, the irony is, these two people are exactly the same people. They both want love and connection. The only difference between them is how they deal with the rejection. And we're so busy focusing on the behaviour and not focusing on what drives it."  

"So I was that kid. I was that kid who was shit-scared of being rejected. I was a guy that was trying to impress my dad my whole life. I wanted my dad to pat me on the head. And my little voice in my head constantly told me I wasn't good enough." 

Is that what got you into comedy? This idea that if people laugh, they love you?  

"Well, yeah. That's exactly it. The first time I told a joke, and everyone laughed, I took the laughter as a sign of people liking me. So that was day one of my comedy career, at 8. And it was day one of my downfall because that was the day that I got my self-esteem from the approval of other people."

You don't regret your comedy career though? 

"No, never."  

You were the best paid comedian in New Zealand. 

"My whole life, I thought that was going to be the answer to my dreams. Imagine that. I wanted to be famous. Why? Because [I thought] famous people are loved by everyone, and famous people have money; money's not everything but money is choice."  

"And I thought these imaginary golden gates would open, there'd be a ticker tape parade like the Americas Cup, and people would be chanting my name."  

"But when those metaphorical gates opened, there was my big head going, “you're still a f**king loser. And you're never gonna make it.”"  

Is that how you still thought of yourself? Even at the height of your fame?  

"At the height of my fame. And that's when the drugs and the alcohol really took off. Now, people associate drugs and alcohol with mental health issues. Drugs and alcohol are a problem for normal people. For me, they were a solution to my problem. They shut up my inner critic." 

Did it start as fun and then transfer into something else? Or was it always a hiding mechanism? 

"It allowed me to be the person that I wanted to be; I could say what I wanted to say. And if I made a dick of myself, I could say, oh, yeah, but I was drunk. I wanted to be the person that I was."  

"And I was a kind drunk. I was a good, kind drug addict. I didn't turn bad at any stage at all. I was open, and I was embracing. It allowed me to make mistakes. But most importantly, it shut up the little voice in my head." 

Are you good with that now? 

"Well, it made me who I am. I always thought that if I got to be a world-famous comedian, then that was everything. Little did I know that was going to be the groundwork that I needed to do the work that I'm doing now."

Have you kicked the drugs and alcohol now?  

"17 years. Yeah, April 1st, 2007, was the last day I picked up. I gave up drugs, alcohol and cigarettes, and I have absolutely no regrets. I'm living my best life."  

You described your old comedy routine recently as misogynist, homophobic construction-site humour. 

"Worse than that. And do you know what changed me? The first time I spoke at a school."  

"I spoke at a Northland school, after I think 19 young people took their own lives, in 2012. The principal was listening to my radio show, The Nutters Club, as he was driving back to school. And he asked me to go up.  

After the talk I met five young people who were having suicidal thoughts. And I went round to each of them in the room. And the first kid said, I said, “so what's up with you?” And he [told me,] and I went, holy heck, that is unbelievable. Congratulations on getting this far, because you're special."  

"And then I said, “did you talk to your parents?” He went, no. “Why not?” Because every time I talk to them about my problems, they make it about them, and they make me feel worse. I said, “give me an example.” Every example he gave me I saw myself."  

"Then the next young man was a young Māori boy, a good-looking kid. And I said, “what about you,” and he goes, first off, I'm Gay. I go, “well, it must be tough.” You know, me making an assumption about him growing up in gang Northland, staunch Northland, and being gay. That must be really tough."  

"And he went, “I'm sweet with being gay.” And I'm, “okay. So, what's the problem?”  

He goes, “every time I hear the word faggot, homo, gay-boy, poofter, even from my friends who love me, I think ‘this is how the world sees me, and what's the point.’”  

And you were telling jokes about that?  

"Not only was I telling jokes, but I was also 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 studio with Guyon Espiner for '30 with Guyon Espiner'. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Let's talk about suicide. Is New Zealand’s approach working? 

"No. We must never talk about the means, ever. But we need to talk about the whys. We need young people, in particular, to understand why someone feels this way." 

Do you do that when you go to schools?  

"Well, not so much. I focus on the inner critic. The base of all mental health problems, particularly with young people, is the little negative conversations we have with ourselves every day."  

"Imagine you're a child today. And you're living in a world of perfection. Every adult that's in front of you is constantly telling you about their success stories and what they do. We're brought up to protect, provide, give our kids a better opportunity and never show weakness, never show fear. Fear creates anxiety."  

"A kid comes home from school and says, ‘five things happened today.’ Four amazing ones. But "what do you mean you failed that maths test, Guyon? I told you on Thursday you had to study for that maths test. Your mother and I had nothing when we were your age. We lived in a cardboard box."

"Our kids are constantly feeling like they are not good enough. And their little inner critic's going it's just me. It's just me. Now, if parents were aware that their behaviour was having this effect on their kids, they would change."  

"So, with the kids, I normalise that no one has got their shit together. And with parents, I help them to understand what they think is good for their children is actually killing them."  

The suicide numbers haven't been really going up. They've been pretty steady, haven't they?  

"They're a rort."  

I'm looking at figures from the coroner's office and from the Ministry of Health Te Whata Ora. They're saying that we're around 10.5 per 100,000 people now. 

"It's more than that, it's more than that."  

How can you possibly know that?  

"Well, they don't count “drownings.” They don't count anyone with alcohol and drugs in their system. The threshold for what they call suicide is so high. The coroner has got to be around 99% certain that this person took their life." 

But that's a good thing, isn't it? You need to be certain before putting facts forward.  

"So, someone who takes their own life and leaves a note, in a lot of cases, they are not counted. They are not counted. Even though they have clearly stated their intention."  

Why not?  

"Because the coroner feels that there is a little bit of doubt, maybe it was a game they were playing. Maybe they had too many drugs and too much alcohol. Now you'll notice that the [suicide] numbers plummeted a couple of years ago." 

They went down 20%.   

"Yeah. But if you’ll notice that white people over 55, they've come down. They're not taking into account assisted dying, which technically is suicide -" 

Well, there's a separate Act of Parliament, which allows you to do that - 

"So, Parliament decides [what is and isn’t suicide]?" 

You have to have a six-months-to-live diagnosis to qualify for euthanasia. What do you think suicide numbers really are? 

"I know the facts right now. In the last three weeks, there's been six people take their own life in Taranaki. You haven't heard about that anywhere else. I just got that statistic from the iwi today. Six. They're not listed."  

"Here's the other thing. Those numbers are solid. So, there are still ongoing inquiries into the deaths of young people. And when they are ruled, they're never added to those numbers, ever. So, I don't believe any of those numbers. I don't believe them." 

Do you think there's a scenario where if we make everyone hyper-aware of mental health, that to some degree we might have people over-diagnosing? 

"Well, I think people are more aware. But the problem is the people running mental health services are using the medicated waiting room. They've been overwhelmed by people. So they're throwing them on medication." 

"We are constantly accused of being the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. That is absolutely correct, because the only way you can get free counselling is go to the doctor, be diagnosed mentally ill, then go on an excruciating long waiting list before seeing a burned-out counsellor." 

"Our thing is, we are an early intervention service, by making young people aware that they can talk about a little emotional problem, before it becomes a big problem, before it becomes a suicidal thought."  

A recent article in The New York Times said that researchers say that mental health awareness campaigns helped some, but for others have a negative effect. It can lead them to over-interpret their symptoms and see themselves as more in-trouble than they are. They've got a name for this - Prevalence Inflation. 

"But I can cite you a study that says if we don't do anything, it kills a lot of people too. Researchers can always find angles." 

"But the fact of the matter is, 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 a as a mental health intervention to just the conversation."  

Does offering free counselling sessions to school kids get in the way of the parent-child relationship?  

"The number one reason kids don't talk to their parents isn't because their parents are dickheads, it’s because I don't want to hurt them. ‘My parents have sacrificed everything for me. And now I can't go and tell them that their reward for doing everything for me, is, this is how I feel. Because they will blame themselves.’"  

"Now think about that. A kid with mental health issues would rather die than tell you they are thinking about dying. What does that say about our society? And more particularly, what does that say about these kids today?"  

"This is the most amazing generation in the history of the world. They’re putting their parents' feelings ahead of their own."  

Do you shape these programs at all? Does Mike King come in and say, here's the Kaupapa, here are our boundaries? 

"We've got a clinical team. I've got a research and development team."  

Are you qualified to provide counselling services? 

"I'm not. But my research and development team, and my clinical director and her team, are more than qualified to do that."  

"This is not Mike King going out there and going “meh-meh-meh-meh-meh.” Maybe that's what people think, because I'm the spokesperson. I get it."  

"But we have got teams in there that tick every box. And everything that we do is evidence based and evaluated. And I would stand up to anyone that comes in and challenges what we do. I would provide them with everything that they need to show we're covering off everything."  

How do you feel about your own mental health? 

"People say that all the time. How do you take care of you?"  

"After the stressful press conference that we had on Tuesday, where everyone was accusing us, I went to Mana college."  

"I gave two talks there. One to the Māori kids in the marae, who challenged me on accepting money from Winston Peters. They challenged me. ‘Why are you doing this?’ And I explained to them that if Gollum gave me $24 million [for mental health services,] I would take it."  

"I am not clipping the ticket. My organisation is giving the whole $24 million [to counselling services,] and I actively encourage them to continue."  

"I spoke to the kids, and do you know what? Listening to them listening to me and then coming up and talking about their issues, that's how I fill my cup."  

"It gives me the purpose, it gives me the drive, and all the dick heads 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."