I lost sev­en friends in four years. That’s not okay.” Fight­ing the war on sui­cide, Sam Dow­dall is embark­ing on a quest to raise aware­ness for men­tal health, specif­i­cal­ly in men.


Pho­to Eden Tay­lor

Every­one I know knows Sam, either as The Don Bar­ber, the Barter Bar­ber, or just Sam. And every­body warms to him. Snip­ping locks in homes from Mat­ua to Mat­api­hi, local boy Sam has become a bit of an icon.

He’s show-stomp­ing­ly attrac­tive, too, with a han­dle­bar mous­tache and tai­lored threads, lus­trous locks and shin­ing, friend­ly eyes. His laugh turns heads and makes peo­ple smile. Any good hero comes with a trusty side­kick and for Sam, that role is com­man­deered by his dog, Bo. “He doesn’t even have to call shot­gun!”

Drop­ping cheeky innu­en­dos through­out our chat, he tells me about his upcom­ing pil­grim­age from north to south.

I got over wait­ing for the week­ly pay cheque and doing things that just ben­e­fit­ed myself, so I made a deci­sion to help oth­ers. I will be spend­ing the next two years vis­it­ing every town in New Zealand, cut­ting hair and talk­ing about sui­cide and the men­tal health of our men.”

All haircuts will be done in exchange for something. Not money. I just need enough to keep me and the dog fed. Anything we don’t use will be sent to my major partner, Trade Me. All the profit made on the sale of each item will go straight to Lifeline, and any food we are given that we don’t eat will go to the local food bank or spca.”

I’m build­ing the car­a­van at the moment, one piece at a time. It will be our home and bar­ber­shop for the next two years. To mod­i­fy it for our pur­pose, I’ve been tak­ing dona­tions for hair­cuts and then using the mon­ey to pay for mate­ri­als.”

Doc­u­ment­ing the jour­ney, Sam’s van will be fit­ted with cam­eras, and although Net­flix have ten­dered for the footage, oth­er par­ties are now show­ing inter­est, too.

Con­ver­sa­tions with Sam are lit up with his cheeky banter.“I love the feel­ing I get from help­ing peo­ple. I get a ‘heart on’, or an ‘affec­tion erec­tion’.

It’s one heck of a road trip, which, accord­ing to Sam’s cal­cu­la­tions, will take 680 days. He plans to stop in at every vol­un­teer fire ser­vice in New Zealand, teach­ing cri­sis pre­ven­tion strate­gies.

The­se guys are usu­al­ly the first on the scene at a sui­cide, and some of them see up to sev­en or eight a year. That’s a big chunk of their com­mu­ni­ty. I want to work with them and help them to teach oth­ers how to man­age this type of sit­u­a­tion. I’ve trained with Life­line specif­i­cal­ly for this trip, and now it’s time to pass this knowl­edge onto oth­ers.”

A lit­tle boy has his hair cut at 2016’s Fes­ti­val One 2017

Sam will also train local hair­dressers and bar­bers in the strate­gies. “I’ve want­ed to do this for a while and tried a few years back. But I didn’t have the right plan­ning behind me. Yes, there’s a lot of admin involved, but I love it. I think the most intense part for me will be the trav­el­ling and con­stant time on the road.”

It’s time to shake off the stig­ma. “Peo­ple hear ‘men­tal health’ and instant­ly think of a straight jack­et, but it’s time to break down that per­cep­tion. This atti­tude becomes worse amongst younger males, espe­cial­ly when you hit the provinces, so I’ll be focus­ing on rural, coastal, and low­er socio-eco­nom­ic areas.“

The prob­lem comes from both men­tal health and emo­tion­al illit­er­a­cy: what you might be suf­fer­ing from, and being too scared to talk about it. Also, that’s what this is jour­ney is all about – encour­ag­ing peo­ple, espe­cial­ly men, to speak up and com­mu­ni­cate. It’s about know­ing how to put your hand up and ask for help.”

His mis­sion in one I encour­age. Most New Zealan­ders are affect­ed in some way by men­tal health, yet the taboo sur­round­ing it leaves us sit­ting in an eerie and igno­rant silence. Nine years ago, I lost a fam­i­ly mem­ber to sui­cide, and not a day goes by when I am not con­sumed by immense, crip­pling guilt, ask­ing myself a bar­rage of ques­tions to which I will nev­er know the answers. Men­tal health for me has become big­ger and more unknown. If I could go back and do some­thing to change it, or do some­thing to help, I would.

As a bar­ber, you are also an infor­mal coun­sel­lor. I’ve been doing this for 12 years now and I know how to get peo­ple to talk. Often when some­one is deal­ing with an issue, it stems from fear and frus­tra­tion, but a bar­ber­shop encour­ages con­ver­sa­tion. It actu­al­ly helps a lot of guys to relax.

Men don’t often touch oth­er men’s faces; it’s a pret­ty inti­mate thing to do. But it’s part of my job. There’s usu­al­ly a long silence, fol­lowed by my cus­tomer open­ing up, shar­ing some­thing per­son­al.”

Embrac­ing vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty is impor­tant. I ask Sam what we can all do to help. “If you’re wor­ried about some­one, sug­gest doing some­thing togeth­er. Get out, go fish­ing, surf­ing or hunt­ing, and at some point in the day, stop and ask, ‘Hey mate, are you all right?’

It’s so small, so incred­i­bly min­ute, nut that one ques­tion can make all the dif­fer­ence, and there’s some­thing real­ly spe­cial when two blokes are cut from the same tree and share that lev­el of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty.”

Tee­ter­ing on the brink of sui­cide is an incred­i­bly dark place to be. It’s often dif­fi­cult to imag­ine the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a future.

I’ve helped peo­ple in this sit­u­a­tion and I want to edu­cate oth­ers on how to do the same. It’s about sit­ting down and say­ing, ‘Let’s have a lis­ten to what got you here. What’s going on? What can I do to make sure you’re safe for now? Let’s make a plan’.”



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