As role models go, Mike King is right up there. The reluctant comedian, whose rise to fame was preceded by a bet with a barman and predicted by none other than Ben Elton, has now been in the public eye for more than two decades.
King’s trajectory to the top has seen him appear in a diverse range of roles from stand-up comic and chat show host, to animal rights activist and documentarian. Among the more serious topics he’s tackled have been documentaries such as Von Tempsky’s Ghost, about the New Zealand Wars, and Swearing, which tested the now-proven hypothesis that swearing can be a sign of high IQ. I bloody love that notion!
Along the way, award nominations for King’s stand-up comedy, his television work and, most recently for his humanitarian work, have all helped ensure the country’s favourite comedian and two-time New Zealander of the Year nominee is never far from the news. But in a country that so loves to cut down the tall poppies, it’s perhaps the negative publicity from his near-death experiences, depression and drug addiction that will ultimately lead to his greatest glory and a lasting legacy.
Mike King has been remarkably candid about his long-term cocaine habit, addiction treatment and battles with mental illness. So candid, in fact, that he’s got the whole country talking about it. Not only that, he’s set the lofty goal of reducing the country’s suicide rate to zero, and in March this year he came off the celebrity speaker circuit to walk the talk.
Or more correctly to drive it, when he set off to raise awareness of mental health issues by driving with ‘a bunch of mates’ from Cape Reinga to Bluff on 50cc motorcycles. The use of small Suzuki motorcycles to undertake an epic ride the length of the country – which would see the I am Hope team speak with some 20,000 Kiwi school kids – has a touch of the comic genius about it.
I assume it’s the transport of choice because it’s anti-machismo for a boys’-own hero to arrive on an underpowered bike. But Mike says, “We were initially going to walk, but when you’re as old as we are, even a 50cc motor-scooter looks like a better option.”
The grand finale of the tour saw the bikes, which had been customised by some of the country’s best-known artists, auctioned off alongside some other coveted items at an exclusive dinner at Sky City. The proceeds from the sale ($76,600) will go some way towards supporting the work of the Key to Life Foundation, a peer support charitable trust which aims to change the way we think, talk and ultimately feel about mental health.
The KTL Foundation grew from The Nutters Club Charitable Trust, initially formed in 2009 by King and a group of like-minded friends as a Facebook forum for people struggling with mental health or addiction issues. An immediate hit, The Nutters Club became a radio and television show based around the simple (but previously untried) premise of people with mental illness publicly sharing their personal stories with King and his ‘Nutcracker’, aka resident psychiatrist Dr David Codyre.
So far, tens of thousands of Kiwis have told their sometimes-harrowing tales, paving the way for open discussion about all kinds of mental illness, while also offering a more open approach to diversity. Using contemporary media platforms to engage people openly in discussion about hither-to-hidden topics has proven a successful way of helping people recover.
The Nutters Club and its successor, The Key to Life Charitable Trust, have broken down the barriers of isolation and shame. Now, by adding talks in schools to the charity’s curriculum, the team is reaching out to the country’s most vulnerable.
King continues to lead by example. He’s open about his own struggles with addiction and illness. He delivers his story in a compelling, comedic way, and they love him for it.
For a man who is closer to the pension than he is to puberty, this is no small achievement. I ask Mike how he manages to get on the wavelength of these young men, and he tells me he’s informed by his own inner critic who is about 12. “I’m 56 going on 16,” he says.
That may be so, but anyone who saw footage of King’s recent talk to Otago Boys’ High School, will think that there’s a touch of the miraculous about his interactions. When he asked the assembly if anyone was struggling with their own mental health issues, tentative hands came up around the room. It’s one of the most powerfully persuasive demonstrations you’re ever likely to see that King is on to something big.
How times have changed. In a country where remaining staunch was considered manly, seeing Kiwi men speak openly about their vulnerabilities is ground-breaking. In the lead-up to Anzac Day this year, King, one of seven 2018 Poppy Ambassadors, spoke to the New Zealand Herald about his admiration for the country’s only living Victoria Cross recipient, Willie Apiata.
The Herald reports [For] “Blokes like Willie Apiata, who we hold up as the bastion of manhood, humble but staunch, to come out and say, ‘Hey I’ve got issues’, that’s a whole new level. If it’s OK for Willie to open up and talk, then why can’t a truck driver from Murupara talk about their problems?
“When Willie says that he still has counselling once a month and every time he goes to sleep he relives it, it’s not only ground-breaking, it’s relieving for people to know they don’t need to hold on to this stuff.”
So, what about King’s own journey with mental illness?
“I have good days and bad days. Life is a roller coaster,” he admits. “Most days I’m glad to be alive.”
Like anyone else living with mental illness, he says the challenge is to let go of the negative thoughts: “I think the lesson is to see our thoughts – good and bad – as just thoughts and not to focus on them too much.”
He says when we ask someone if they have ever had suicidal thoughts, many people could say yes.
“The point is not to label those thoughts as bad thoughts. They are just thoughts. A lot of people ‘think’ about suicide but they don’t commit suicide. I think about dating Halle Berry, but I don’t actually date Halle Berry…”
King says that for too long we’ve been taught to relish happiness and ignore other emotions. He says acceptance of the full spectrum of our emotions is key to self-understanding and growth. Acceptance looms large in his life – he believes it’s a tool to help lower our suicide rate.
“For this to work – and it can work, absolutely it can work – to help these kids, we have to drop the labels of colour, race, city or country and just focus on them being our kids,” he says. “We need to bring it home. Go home and change yourself. Focus on your own family, check in to see if they’re OK.”
On the journey to recovery, self- acceptance had to come first for King. He has previously described himself as a “recovering asshole.” These days the former wild man says he’s grateful for the presence of his wife Joanna and daughter Charlie when he’s on the road. He says it’s grounding. “It’s fantastic to have my family with me. It would be impossible to do this without them.”
Also on the team is Mike’s 2IC, Dallas Gopi, who reached out to Mike three years ago and came to work alongside him for free. Dallas has also had his emotional struggles.
“We manage as best as we can,” Mike says. “We all put on a mask, don’t we? It’s what we do. People ask, ‘How are you doing?’ and we say ‘Yeah, good.’ But what if it’s not? What then? For me it’s been about learning that life has its ups and downs. I’m slowly getting to understand that that is just what life’s like.”
Mike has swapped the high life (pun intended) for a life with less financial security, but he has no regrets.
“Money doesn’t buy happiness. I know that now. I just had to change my mind-set.”
To support the work of The Key to Life Foundation, or to get help with mental or addiction issues, go to: keytolife.org.nz .