In his letter to the Ministry of Health announcing his resignation from New Zealand's suicide prevention panel, Mike King asks a disturbing question: "Have we returned to the defeatist attitude that some degree of suicide is acceptable, inevitable, or both?"

King, a comedian and television presenter who has spoken about depression, berated the Government for apparently abandoning a target of reducing the rate of suicides in New Zealand by 20 per cent over 10 years. King believes the target is realistic and essential to give the suicide prevention plan a clear direction.

There is no doubt such clarity is needed. About 540 people die by suicide in New Zealand every year, and last year that number reached 579. Young people are particularly vulnerable: We have one of the highest rates of youth suicide in the developed world.

King's letter highlights a frustration with the bureaucratic system, blasting the "vanilla" language used in the panel's draft proposal.


At one point, after considering three broad-brush statements described as "pathways", King asks: "What does any of this even mean?" This frustration is understandable: King has battled depression himself and is clearly on the panel in a bid to create real change, not benign policy statements.

However, Prime Minister Bill English hinted there was difficulty on both sides, saying King's "style" probably didn't suit "sitting around in meetings talking about generalities". He said if he was presented with the idea of King joining a Ministry of Health panel he would have said: "I think both parties will struggle with that."

That is a real shame. Alongside Sir John Kirwan, King has been one of the few voices to bring the subject of depression into the light in a way that really connects with people.

Part of the reason is his public profile but also because, like Kirwan, he has first-hand experience and knowledge of the effects of depression. If the ministry cannot find a way to accommodate and learn from his presence and perspective, it is a failing.

The debate around the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, which deals with the issue of youth suicide, shows the power of popular culture to force an issue into the spotlight, and King possesses some of that power.

Fortunately, he has pledged to keep working in the field of suicide prevention. Ironically, the bust-up with the ministry might serve to highlight the causes that King fights for.

It also puts the onus on the Ministry of Health to introduce some clear targets into its suicide prevention plan. Its approach is reminiscent of the Government's refusal to set a target for reducing child poverty.

New Zealanders, especially our young people, need the Government to be doing a lot more than "sitting around in meetings talking about generalities".

Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
Samaritans 0800 726 666
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.