Mike King to return New Zealand Order of Merit medal because mental health system is 'still broken'

Mike King.
Mike King. Photo credit: Getty Images

Mental health campaigner Mike King will return his New Zealand Order of Merit medal because he feels "things haven't changed and so many are still suffering" from mental health problems.

King was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to mental health awareness and suicide prevention in 2019. In a letter to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, he says while he was honoured to receive the award at the time, it no longer sits comfortably with him to have the award.

"Three years ago I remember standing on a podium with you singing your party's praises as you announced that you were spending $1.9b on mental health," he writes.

"As long as I live I will never forget that day. There was such a euphoric feeling in the air, full of optimism and hope and I believed with all my heart things were about to change, finally we had a government who cared."

But three years on, he says he feels they've both "let everybody down".

"I know none of this is your fault Prime Minister and I know you truly care about our children but the system is broken and it seems to our most vulnerable Kiwis and their families that no one is trying to fix it," he says. 

"On that basis I stand with those families and with great sadness I will be returning my NZOM medal to Dame Patsy Reddy before she leaves office."

King tells Newshub giving up the medal was difficult in some ways but easy in others.

"I don't want people to see this action as a protest against the Government, it's more me showing support to the families out there who are going through this every single day and they think that no one's seeing them and no one cares," he says.

"I hung on with all the hope in my heart that things were actually going to change, and I can see now that they're not. This is not a Government issue - governments come and go, bureaucrats stay the same."

In a statement to Newshub, Ardern says she doesn't believe King has been in touch with her recently about this, but she wants to assure him and others they know the work to improve mental health in New Zealand isn't complete yet. 

"We have made good steps but know there is much more to do," she says.

"While I totally respect Mike's decision, his honour was about the contribution he's made to improving people's lives - and that stands."

Ardern's office confirmed the Honours Unit will contact King to confirm the next steps for him.

May 28 marks the third anniversary of I Am Hope's Gumboot Friday, which is run by King and raises money to give Kiwi kids struggling with mental health the opportunity to access free counselling services. King will be walking 100 kilometres in gumboots around Auckland Domain to raise $100,000 that will help reach the $5 million goal.

"If we reach our goal it will provide over 37,000 free non-stigmatising counselling sessions for our kids. I say non-stigmatising because under the current system the only way young people can get free counselling is to go to a doctor, be diagnosed mentally ill, and then go on a long waiting list before being met by an often burnt-out mental health professional," he says. 

"Every day I am contacted by families begging for help after being told their children don't qualify for counselling because they are not suicidal enough. 

"Every week I am on planes flying around the country meeting with distressed families whose children have been discharged from hospital after a suicide attempt with little or no support, often without even seeing a psychiatrist."

King adds he can no longer stand idly by hoping things will change when he knows they won't.