Sam Dowdall — The Don Barber
“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.
WORDS TALIA WALDEGRAVE PHOTO JORDAN VICKERS
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.”
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’.”
FEEL GOOD TUNES
Playlist for a bright future
YOU’RE NEVER ALONE
Lifeline 0800 543 354
Depression helpline 0800 111 757
FOLLOW THE JOURNEY
HELP SAM + BO STAY ON THE ROAD AND RAISE AWARENESS FOR MEN’S HEALTH + SUICIDE PREVENTION IN NEW ZEALAND.