Former All Black John Kirwan is to front a $6.4 million government depression awareness campaign.

The three-year National Depression Initiative, announced today by Associate Health Minister Jim Anderton and paid for out of the existing Suicide Prevention Strategy budget, aims to raise awareness of depression.

"We know that up to 90 per cent of suicides are caused by depression and that each year 500 New Zealanders are dying by suicide," Mr Anderton said.

"If we can raise awareness and reduce the impact that depression has on people's lives, hopefully we can reduce the number of lives being lost to suicide every year."

He welcomed the involvement of Kirwan, who himself suffered from depression over the course of his All Blacks career, as frontman for the advertising campaign.

Mr Anderton said the World Health Organisation had projected depression would be second only to cardiovascular disease as part of the "global burden" of disease.

"We are not talking about people feeling down or moody. We know everyone feels like that at some time in their lives but some people continue to feel like that for long periods of time."

The National Depression Initiative campaign would support new and existing primary health care and mental health promotion services.