Friday, December 8, 2023

‘Till The Day I Die, I’ll Be A Work In Progress’ How Are You Today, Mike King on Vulnerability

In our story series ‘How Are You Today?’, we have a meandering, mental-health focused chat with some of our most well-known New Zealanders. Check out previous chats with people like Hayley HoltRoseanne Liang and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Today we chat to Mike King. TW: This conversations includes discussion of suicide and eating disorders.

If you want a fluffy, feel-good chat about mental health, then Mike King is not your guy. For over a decade, the former comedian turned mental health advocate has been on the front-line of NZ’s appalling mental health problems and he estimates he’s got 10 years left of fighting before he drops dead. Mike’s charity I Am Hope has raised millions of dollars for counselling for school kids and the next charity event, Fight For Life, takes place on July 21st. In this very honest conversation, Mike talks to Capsule about his own relationship with vulnerability, the mental-health tsunami we’re on the verge of and why he wants bureaucrats and politicians to change direction.

Hi Mike, how are you today?
Look, my life is way too busy for someone who is in the business of young people’s mental health and wellbeing. I don’t think New Zealand has fully grasped the tsunami of mental health issues that are coming due to Covid, bureaucratic incompetence and just general lack of caring.

Okay. What are some of those general factors that are also leading to this tsunami?
The number one problem for young people today is negative self-talk – an overactive inner critic, overthinking. From a young person’s perspective, they are living in a world where everyone is pretending to be perfect – their parents are perfect, their teachers are perfect, every adult in their life is perfect, everyone except them is perfect. They are constantly being told what they’re doing wrong.

‘We’re constantly telling our kids “You need to tell us when there’s a problem, you need to talk more” but we don’t role model that behaviour at all.’

Your kid comes home from school and tells you about five things that happened in their day, four are great, and one’s bad. What do we focus on? “What do you mean you failed that maths test! I told you on Thursday you had to study for that test didn’t I?”

No-one ever focuses on what they’re doing well, which would be fine if the big people in their life talked about some of the stuff they’re failing at, if we showed vulnerability, but we don’t. We’re constantly telling our kids “You need to tell us when there’s a problem, you need to talk more” but we don’t role model that behaviour at all.

In our minds we’re not criticising, we think we’re giving encouragement. “Son, your mum and I love you but we both know you can do better.” Unfortunately, our kids are hearing “No matter what I do, I’m never going to be good enough for you.”

“Dad, I got four tries today!” “I was there, mate, you should have got five.” One of my favourite quotes of all time is by Peggy O’Mara “How we speak to our children becomes their inner voice.” To put it in context, think about this: two little criticisms a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, for 15 years. That’s a hell of an inner critic we are planting in our children’s heads.

‘Everyone knows someone who is struggling with an eating disorder, but no one is talking about it, yet.’

The other tsunami that’s coming is a tsunami of eating disorders. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate in mental health and no-one is talking about it, yet. Why? Because right now it’s primarily a white middle class mental health problem. And the bureaucrats in Wellington want New Zealand to believe that mental health is a poor brown problem.

That myth needs to be shattered. We speak to kids in high decile schools and we talk to kids in low decile schools and guess what? They all have the same problem. “I’m not good enough!”

I work with a lot with corporates and after I’ve talked about eating disorders, so many of them come up afterward saying ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going through this.’ And I’m not exempt from this – I’ve got a daughter who struggles with her food. Everyone knows someone who is struggling with an eating disorder, but no one is talking about it, yet.

You talked about that idea of adults not showing vulnerability – how has your relationship with your own vulnerability changed?
So when I was young, my dad taught me the four rules to being a man. Protect your family, provide for your family, give your kids a better opportunity than you had, and never show weakness. Those four rules to me meant work and work meant money. With my older kids, my love language was money.

Most men of my age have a love language of money. We’re not good at showing our emotions and why is that? Because our dads didn’t show us any emotion. My dad didn’t tell me he loved me until I was 45 years old. Why? Because HIS dad never told him he loved him. He didn’t know how. I’m lucky, I’ve got three generations of kids: my eldest are 35, 33 and 25. And then I’ve got 20, 18 and my youngest is eight.

‘I think I’m a much better dad today than I was 35 years ago. I’m a lot more vulnerable now.’

With my first generation of kids: ‘My house, my rules, because I said so.’ Second generation: ‘yeah, you can have your say, but it’s still no.’ Third generation: ‘Shut up and listen, Michael; be vulnerable, let her talk.’ It’s a different world. I think I’m a much better dad today than I was 35 years ago. I’m a lot more vulnerable now and my kids know when I’m not having a great day, because I tell them – I talk about my feelings. In saying that, I’m still a work in progress. Till the day I die, I’ll be a work in progress.  

You talk about evolution and the idea that you’re ‘a work in progress’. Not every man from your generation is happy to acknowledge that. Why are you?
I started on this journey of talking to kids who were suicidal or have been affected by suicide back in 2013. It was in Northland after nine young people had taken their lives the year before. When I got there, my plan was to tell the kids some jokes to cheer them and drop some subtle hints that they should stop killing themselves because they were hurting their community. What an idiot!

When I got here and walked into the hall, you could feel the hurt, the tension and I immediately knew jokes weren’t going to be appropriate. So I talked to these young people about my battles wrestling with self-doubt and imposter syndrome.

‘It was in that moment I realised: “Holy shit, I’m the problem.” And that changed my life.’

Later, I realised I was probably one of the first flawed adults in these kids’ lives. I didn’t go up and say “Here’s what you’re doing wrong, here’s what you need to do to fix it, and by the way, stop killing yourselves.” I didn’t talk about them, I talked about me. And they could recognise the beginning of their journey in my story. I would say: “When that happens, I feel like this. How many of you have felt like that?” and when they saw everyone else putting their hands up, they realised they weren’t alone.

After that talk, I went and spoke to five kids who were on suicide watch and they explained to me their life and their relationship with their parents, and just as they had recognised themselves in my story, I recognised myself as a parent in their story. And it was in that moment I realised: “Holy shit, I’m the problem.” And that changed my life. Up until that moment I thought like my dad thought: “kids are the problem and I need to fix it!” Now I realise I’m a huge part of the problem and the person that needs the most fixing is me.  

The mental health landscape has changed so much over the past few years––
In what way do you say it’s changed?

Well, we have the kind of conversations we’re having now.
No, me and you have these kind of conversations. People still don’t have these conversations. We pretend we do. We signal that we care. No, it’s still the same that it was 20 years ago.

Do you really think that?
Yes, I do. In the past 10 years, I’ve spoken to 250,000 school kids around the country, and they will tell you a completely different story from warm, fuzzy “things have changed, we’re all talking about it” story. And that’s not a criticism, that’s just a fact. Around 40% of kids in school will have a major crisis associated with some type of suicidal thinking before they leave school, whether it’s a one-off thought, or a recurring thought that grinds them down on a daily basis.

Every time I say that to a room full of adults, they panic. And they panic because I said the ‘S’ word, that’s what we call it nowadays, we call it the ‘S’ word. It’s like they have given this word so much power, that if anyone says ‘suicide’ out loud everyone will die. It’s bullshit! 99% of people, whether they want to admit it or not, have had a ‘thought’. If you haven’t thought to yourself at least once in your life “what’s the point?”, then you need to get out of that marshmallow you’re living in.  

‘The stat that scares me: 80% of suicidal kids never ask for help.’

40% of kids having a thought doesn’t scare me. The stat that scares me: 80% of suicidal kids never ask for help. And the reason? Because they’re worried about what we are going to think. They are worried about what they think we will say.

And the number one reason kids won’t talk to their parents about their suicidal thoughts is because they don’t want to disappoint them. “My mum and dad have worked so hard and sacrificed so much for me, I can’t tell them I want to die, they’ll think it is their fault.”

Now you can’t look me in the eye and say that things have changed when 80% of kids still shit themselves at the thought that someone else will find out they’re having suicidal thoughts. Last year, there were over 100 young people who took their lives. How many of those kids do you reckon died because they didn’t feel like they could tell anyone they were suicidal?

Do you think then that the difference between how well we think we’re doing and what things are really like means that it’s actually worse than it was 20 years ago?
Yes. The numbers don’t lie. As I said earlier, there is a tsunami of mental health issues coming and we are not prepared. And by prepared, I don’t mean we need to build 100’s more mental health crisis units. When you only fund crisis, guess what – you get more crisis, it’s reactive and we need to start being more proactive.

‘We need to normalise the inner critic. We need to make counselling a normal part of life for young people.’

Education is the key. We need to normalise the inner critic. We need to make counselling a normal part of life for young people. Currently the only way a young person can get free counselling is to be declared mentally unwell. Kids don’t need to see a counsellor when they are mentally ill, they need to see a counsellor to stay well.

How do you look after your own mental health when you are working in a field where there is never-ending need?
One of the adjustments I’ve made is spending more time with my family. For the last however many years, I’ve been on the road helping other families and neglecting my own. So my wife and I came up with a happy compromise. I got her a set of golf clubs and we go out to the driving range and hit balls together, and she’s back working with the charity. Jo and I started it together, and we aim to finish my journey together.

By my Māori calculations I’ve got 10 years left, baby. I’m 60 years old. I’ve had a stroke, I’ve had two heart thingy’s, and been involved in two massive bike crashes. So I am not going to burn out, with my wife by my side I’m going to keep going till I die.

On July 21st, iconic celebrity fight show Fight For Life will be taking place, raising money for Mike’s charity I Am Hope. Since 2021, Mike King’s Gumboot Friday charity has spent over $2 million funding kid’s free counselling sessions, visit here to donate.

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