All Blacks legend Sir John Kirwan has challenged politicians to stop playing political football with mental health as New Zealand's suicide figures head the wrong way.
MPs from every party in Parliament on Wednesday came together for the launch of a joint group to work on long-term mental health and addiction policies by taking some of the politics out of the debate.
Kirwan, the former Blues coach and mental health campaigner, hosted the event, describing mental health as New Zealand's new Mount Everest.
"New Zealanders can do anything … We're back-to-back World Cup winners, we can do anything, but we dropped the ball on this one," he said.
"This is an Everest and one step at a time we will knock the bugger off."
New Zealand has the highest youth suicide rate in the OECD. People with severe mental health challenges live about 25 years shorter on average.
Provisional statistics issued this week by the Chief Coroner put the national suicide rate at the highest level since records began, with Maori, Pacific and young people particularly affected.
Sir John said he was incredibly disappointed with the figures.
He was also frustrated with seeing the mental health used as a "political football" and hoped the cross-parliamentary group would help.
"It's so important for our country that it gets taken out of the political arena and discussed in cross-party discussions."
He said he would personally be holding politicians to account at the first whiff of political game-playing.
"We can smell that straight away and I'll be the first one making a phone call," he told the audience in Parliament.
The parliamentary group is made up of Labour's Louisa Wall, National's Matt Doocey, Act leader David Seymour, Green MP Chloe Swarbrick and NZ First's Jenny Marcroft. It is assisted by the Platform Trust – an umbrella organisation for dozens of mental health and addiction services.
Doocey, who worked in the mental health sector before entering politics, said New Zealand's three-year political cycle produced a lack of commitment to some solutions.
The group wants to take advice from experts and politicians, and come up with long-term suggestions that will out-last individual Governments.
"There's a huge demand growing. And we need a longer-term policy setting to start addressing that," Doocey said.
Swarbrick said the group was an attempt to de-politicise what were often charged issues, and was the result of a two-year effort.
"The best possible thing we can promote with this group is a space for mature and respectful discussion about very vexed, very emotional issues," she said.
"You'll have pretty much all politicians agreeing about what the problems are here, but not necessarily on the solutions."
Swarbrick, who has spoken about being on medication for depression, said in her time at Parliament she had been shocked to hear politicians heckle each other using language that stigmatised mental health issues.
"I think that we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard and that's what this cross-party group … offer[s] the opportunity to do."
The group's first meeting will invite all MPs to talk about their own workplace stress.