Mental health: New Zealand needs to 'change the message' about depression - Mike King

The Government may have gone "hard and early" in the fight against COVID-19, but New Zealand's response to mental illness is continuing to stagnate in the "same hole" it has sat in for years, argues mental health advocate Mike King.

As New Zealand begins the process of recovering from the fears, anxieties and stressors of a global pandemic, confronting the widespread impacts of almost five weeks in lockdown - including heightened unemployment - the spotlight is once again on the concept of mental health. Yet according to King, the spotlight is highlighting an outdated campaign that fails to accurately represent the people who are suffering.

"I wanted to give New Zealand a more realistic view of what someone with depression actually looks like... someone who isn't perky and hasn't recovered from mental health issues. Currently we've got the saccharine view of what depression looks like," an ungroomed King told The AM Show on Monday morning.

"Depression has more than one face - it's often unmotivated, it's smelly, it's not always withdrawn - often it's very angry. It's unapproachable - 'I'm fine! I'm not the problem, you're the problem'... Until people can actually look at the television screen, see themselves up there and know they're not alone, nothing's going to change."

King argues that the face of New Zealand's major mental health campaigns, rugby union coach and former player Sir John Kirwan, may be inadvertently encouraging feelings of isolation among depression sufferers. 

"When you're depressed and you see John Kirwan, you don't see recovery. You see yourself, and you see complete and utter failure. Do you think I'm going to be motivated to go online and jump on an app? I can't even be motivated to get out of bed," King said, referencing the free Mentemia mental wellbeing app, co-founded by Kirwan. 

"If the face of mental health is this healthy-looking, ex-sports-dude who always looks immaculate... why would I stigmatise myself even further by reaching out to ask for help? Everything has to change, [including] the way New Zealanders see depression."

King says Sir John Kirwan may appear too "immaculate" for depression sufferers to identify with.
King says Sir John Kirwan may appear too "immaculate" for depression sufferers to identify with. Photo credit: File

Even the message to 'ask for help' is not productive, King says, noting that roughly 80 percent of people who suffer mental illness will never reach out for guidance and support.

"They're worried what other people will think, say and do with that information... they're worried about stigma, gossip and reputational damage. The Ministry of Health's solution to this? 'Hey, if you're in trouble, reach out and ask for help'. It's like I've told you I'm scared of sharks, and your suggestion is to swim across shark-infested waters to get to the help we need. We need to change the message," he said.

"The ridiculous thing is when people [ask for help], the help's not actually there. We've got this app now, which is great for mild to moderate. But this is moderate to severe, and there's nothing there for those people. Or we've got drugs."

In April, the Government announced it will be fast-tracking New Zealand's mental health services with new funding, ramping up its response amid the COVID-19 pandemic. A further $40 million is being invested into 100 new free mental health and addiction services, on top of the 22 already existing across the country. The programme, which will be fully rolled out by the middle of next year, will be available for an estimated 1.5 million people. Further services will then be rolled out over the following three years.

"This is the Ministry of Health's solution - [here's] an extra 15 minutes with a mental health nurse or a GP, that's it. That's not going to fix this," King said.

He is calling for the Government to implement a subsidised counselling system to help New Zealanders battling mental illness.

"All New Zealanders should take head of this: I'm not qualified to help anyone or take on other people's problems. All I'm qualified to do is give unconditional love and hope. We do that by pathwaying people to the help they need [sic]," he said.

"We need to have a productive and subsidised counselling system from the Government - but before we do that, we need to change what depression looks like. If I'm not seeing someone like me on the screen, I'm the broken one - and no one can fix me."

Where to find help and support: 

  • Shine (domestic violence) - 0508 744 633
  • Women's Refuge - 0800 733 843 (0800 REFUGE)
  • Need to Talk? - Call or text 1737
  • What's Up - 0800 WHATS UP (0800 942 8787)
  • Lifeline - 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
  • Youthline - 0800 376 633, text 234, email or online chat
  • Samaritans - 0800 726 666
  • Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757
  • Suicide Crisis Helpline - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
  • Shakti Community Council - 0800 742 584