One of the country’s most well-known comedians, Mike King now dedicates his life to changing the way Kiwis think about mental health and suicide. A finalist for Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year, Mike has brought his message of hope to more than 180,000 schoolchildren.
Comedy was Mike King’s dream job. For a self-doubting kid with no friends, discovering he was funny proved to be a ticket to money, fame and – perhaps best of all – the feeling that at last people liked him.
But five years ago, he gave it all up. Now Mike’s more likely to be found on a school stage than in a TV studio.
And instead of trying to make audiences laugh, Mike’s aim is to bring young people hope.
Since leaving comedy, Mike has toured the country giving more than 180,000 schoolchildren the powerful message that life should be about loving yourself rather than hardening up. He used to be fully behind New Zealand’s ‘stay staunch’ culture, but now believes it’s the path to despair, depression and suicide.
“I remember meeting a father who said his son told him he had a friend who was having suicidal thoughts. The dad said the friend was a selfish little bugger who just wanted attention,” says Mike.
“Three weeks later, he found his son dead. The son had left a note saying, ‘Sorry I let you down, Dad.’
“We have to stop judging kids and start doing a better job of loving them.”
Mike’s own experience of depression and drug addiction led him to his new role. A pivotal moment came during one of his early school visits, when a school counsellor asked him to talk to a gay Māori boy who was having recurring suicidal thoughts.
“I said it must be tough to be Māori and gay and he said, ‘No, I’m sweet with my sexuality. What I can’t stand is how society treats me. I feel bad every time I hear the words faggot or poofter,’” says Mike.
“I’d used those words and I’d encouraged other people to use those words. That was a real turning point for me. That was when I knew I had to change.”
Mike visits schools and towns around New Zealand with the charity he founded, The Key to Life. He also chairs The Nutters Club radio show, now on NewstalkZB.
While Mike may have a new mission, he doesn’t pull any more punches now than he did when he was doing stand-up.
Mike resigned from the previous government’s suicide prevention panel last year in protest at its refusal to set a clear suicide reduction goal, and is a vocal critic of the mental health establishment’s focus on crisis management.
He believes young people want only two things: to be loved, and to have their thoughts and opinions valued by the significant people in their lives. “They want to know they matter to you,” Mike says.
He’d like more Kiwis to feel able to say, “I love you and I’m here for you. Talk to me if you have a problem.”
Mike’s mental health advocacy has earned him a place as one of three finalists in the Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year Awards, to be announced on February 22 (see nzawards.org for more information).
He sees the nomination as a tribute to the work of his exceptionally dedicated team, many of whom have made huge sacrifices to support him – especially his wife, Joanna.
Mike worked without pay for three years, and he and Joanna sold many of their possessions to enable him to continue to speak at schools free of charge.
While his new gig is much tougher than his old gig, Mike says he’s never regretted swapping comedy for working with young people.
“I thought comedy was my dream job, but I was wrong. I have traded in a false life based on the relentless pursuit of temporary pleasure for a life full of hope and promise,” he says.
“Working with kids fills me up with happiness. I wouldn’t trade the life I have now for anything.”
The New Zealander of the Year Awards celebrate those people who use their passion for New Zealand to make our country a better place. These awards are an opportunity for New Zealanders to honour extraordinary Kiwis whose selflessness, creativity, and vision make us proud to call New Zealand home. Find out more about the New Zealander of the Year Award winners and those in the running for 2018.
This article discusses issues such as mental health and suicide, and contains strong language. If you or someone you know is affected by the issues discussed in this article, there are people who can help:
Free call or text 1737 to talk to a trained counsellor, anytime.
Lifeline: 0800 543 354
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO
Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757
Samaritans: 0800 726 666
Youthline: 0800 376 633 or email@example.com
Healthline: 0800 611 116