Bartering barber guides men to better mental health

Among the drawcards at the Puhoi Village Market on Sunday, July 29, was Sam Dowdall, otherwise known as The Barter Barber.

For the past year-and-a-half, Sam has been touring the country in an old van, talking to men about mental health issues while cutting their hair.

The Bay of Plenty hairdresser started his travels after becoming increasingly troubled by the number of his friends and clients who ended up committing suicide.

“I’ve met a lot of really neat people and talked with men of all ages. It was a positive experience in Puhoi and I will be back,” he says.

Sam says a lot of men will open up to a barber when they might otherwise stay silent. He says this partly reflects tradition – barber shops have a reputation for being places where men can banter. And, he says it could also reflect the vulnerability of the client in the chair being attended to by a man wielding a pair of sharp scissors or a cut-throat razor.

“If a man is willing to trust me to cut his hair, then quite often he is willing to trust me with other things as well,” Sam says.

He adds that he often reaches men who would never think of going to see a counsellor.

“A lot of guys – especially with all the suicides going on in the rural sector – know there is an issue, but they just don’t know what to do about it.”

Sam talks to men about how they can look after their own mental health, stay happy and how they can help other men going through dark periods.

He says a lot of it is about delivering relevant information, rather than counselling and assisting men to see where they can get further help.

Convinced that money should be no barrier to accessing information, Sam does not charge cash for his haircuts. Instead, he accepts things like gas vouchers, the use of a shower, a meal or even a good story as payment.

But he admits going cashless does have its problems.

“You can’t pay your parking tickets with loaves of bread – and believe me, I’ve tried,” he says.