Answers lie with giving kids permission to talk
Entertainer Mike King stands at the front of a classroom in a Rotorua school, but he's not there to make the kids laugh.
He's there on a Key to Life mission. He is fielding questions and comments on why New Zealand has one of the world's highest youth-suicide rates.
A girl, who says people think of her as the funny person - the class clown, breaks down. She reveals that when her stepfather died, her mother had sold the house without a word and she had had to move in with her sister.
A South African boy bursts into tears: "Everyone thinks I've got a perfect life. I love my family but my life's not perfect."
His admission prompts a reaction from a boy in a hat, who appears to be asleep. "I've been bullied so much," he says. "I walk down the road and I'm looking at people and want to kill people and kill myself every day."
Another boy bursts into tears. "I'm top of my class but I don't want to do this. I want to be an actor," he says. A few weeks ago he had held a bottle to his throat, threatening to kill himself.
Another girl lost two relatives and two close family friends to suicide in the past year. "This is just a class of 20," King says, "there were other kids in there that weren't talking but you could see they were thinking about it."
By giving youth permission to talk, society can swap the safety blanket at the bottom of the cliff for a cup of tea at the top, he says.
"If we don't bring it up now, that young boy might be the boy who walks back into the school with the machinegun and starts wasting everybody because of bullying behaviour. It's like a pressure cooker and if someone doesn't release that pressure and get these kids out there talking, then maybe that boy will cut his throat with the broken bottle.
"Maybe the girl who's lost four people to suicide will want to join them. We have to trust that kids understand there are going to be these moments and things will settle."
On his Rotorua trip, King estimates he handed out 700 cards with his personal number and was contacted by about 30 of the students - staying up until 3am to answer their questions.
"This is the most amazing generation of kids in the history of the world. They are phenomenally intelligent, they speak a completely different language, but if you empower them, they can come up with the most genius solutions.
"And I realised, right there, the biggest mistake we're making in changing this culture of suicide and mental health awareness in New Zealand, is that we're ignoring the people that have the solution."
The small pool of funds for suicide prevention means no-one is working at the top of the cliff to help catch people before they hit the downward spiral of depression, he says.
Something mildly upsetting initially can turn into a suicidal thought three years later. "Imagine if we could catch all of this and turn it into a sniffle, rather than full-blown pneumonia."
Waiting times to get help are unacceptable, King says. At Key to Life the trust has six - sometimes eight - children who are provided with psychological services out of the trust's own pocket.
"If you go and see the district health board or the Mental Health Foundation, they'll point you to all the free stuff they have available and they can say it will be available in the next two hours.
"It's all crap. Everything they do is a barrier. Go see a GP first? Well, some of the kids I work with don't even have a GP. Then when you do that the GP will recommend you see someone but that's a six-week wait.
"I'm sorry, but my kid wants to commit suicide right now. He doesn't want to wait six weeks while you get your act together."
King's motivation comes from a personal background with depression, a suicide attempt in 2007 and another one, nearly two years later, when he lost the lifestyle and friends that came with drugs and alcohol after going sober.
"Medication helped me. It helped quieten down the noises in my head. When you're depressed every look is a negative look. Every smile is a cynical smile. It's always negative. You can't decipher between a good message, a good hug, a good look - you just can't. It's all bad and if it wasn't intended to be, by the time I'd processed it, it was evil.
"What medication did was centre me again and allowed me to decipher between good and bad messages. Medication cures symptoms, it doesn't cure the illness and when I was able to get counselling on top of the medication, that was when it all began to make sense." Fairfax NZ
The Dominion Post