In 2017, Sam Dowdall set off on a two-year journey around New Zealand as The Barter Barber - exchanging haircuts for "koha" and conversation around men's mental health. With that anniversary now past, Dowdall has decided to extend his mission while continuing to confront his own mental health challenges.

THERE'S something special about Sam Dowdall.

It isn't his mullet or handlebar moustache, nor is it the side-plait that he plays with when he's nervous.

It's that this bohemian barber - in a tough leather jacket - is as vulnerable as the men he's trying to save.

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Crisis-trained Dowdall has been touring New Zealand with his waistcoat-wearing dog Bo since February 2017, on a mission to get men to talk about their feelings while bartering haircuts for everything from petrol to food.

What was meant to be a two-year journey is now set to continue indefinitely.

"The number of groups that I'm starting to get to, I really feel like I'm just starting to come into my stride," he says.

His mission has been to change the current landscape of men's mental health and encourage men to talk about their feelings. Dowdall, who suffers from depression and anxiety, frequently has to heed his own advice.

In the coming weeks, he will head to Christchurch where post the March mosque attack; he'll park himself in a bit of "red zone" for four months to lend support. He'll then continue on to the West Coast and has also been invited to offer his services at two police districts.

During his time as The Barter Barber, Dowdall has met Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, starred in a Loading Docs documentary, spent time in Tonga after Cyclone Gita, and made an impression on countless New Zealanders.

One of those is his "childhood idol" and former What Now television presenter Jason Fa'afoi, who reached out to Dowdall last year.

"He's got some sunshine about him," he says of Dowdall's infectious personality.

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In exchange for a haircut, Fa'afoi gifted him a bone carving necklace that was given to him by a What Now fan years earlier in Gisborne. The carver suggested Fa'afoi re-gift it if he ever felt the need.

Having battled depression over the past decade, it was an easy decision to pay forward the taonga, the 46-year-old says.

"Sam's putting his awesome self forward just to chat, and chatting can be quite powerful at times. He should be encouraged because he's needed out there," Fa'afoi says.

As well as teaching men how to emotionally support themselves and their mates, Dowdall has a long-term goal of setting up youth centres around New Zealand.

"It would be Barter Barber style, but instead of it just being me, it'd be the community pulling together," Dowdall says.

"I think kids are having less and less spaces to be kids. But it's also [about] having positive role models. Coming out of this mission, it gives me even more power to do something like that."

The biggest heart

HIS mum Robyne can go way back in Dowdall's childhood but still not find the beginning of what was to come.

However, when he was about 8, his teacher informed her in a school interview that she didn't see Dowdall ever having a 9-5 job.

"I looked at her in absolute horror: 'Well, what do you see him doing?' And she said: 'You know the Mad Professor? Well, that's Sam'."

Dowdall loved that teacher because she allowed him to be himself, Robyne says.

"Her comment put less boundaries around my expectations knowing that the normal will not follow Sam. He will make his own norms."

She is her son's biggest fan but worries about him financially and emotionally, and questions: "When will enough be enough?"

With his caring personality, he will always keep giving. She doesn't want it to ever be at his own detriment.

"He will always see the need, and there will always be the need. I'm hoping that this journey of Sam's will morph into the next stage. Any form of social work if looked at correctly, will always lead itself rather than [someone] leading it.

"I do hope powers-to-be will acknowledge this needs some form of funding around it if he's going to carry on. How many times do we have to reinvent the wheel with mental health? Let's just get to the root cause and fund the people who are doing the mahi."

Throughout his journey as The Barter Barber, Dowdall has battled with his own mental health.

He purposely doesn't have a cellphone, so he can take time out, allowing himself to only be contactable via email or Facebook messenger on a tablet with a wireless router.

Best friend Jacob Fielding says three or four years ago, Dowdall probably wouldn't have acknowledged that he had depression.

"I think in a lot of ways [this journey] has helped him understand his own mental health. I'm definitely in support of him continuing to do it, because it seems it's what he's been happiest doing, ever.

"For someone who has a big and boisterous personality, he's very approachable for people who haven't met him before. I think people build a connection with Sam quite quickly."

Making a difference

THROUGH word of mouth, Dowdall has been told that he's helped save lives.

"It makes me feel good, but at the same end, there's also people that I haven't been able to save and that's been difficult," he muses.

He recharges by doing meditation, mindfulness, skateboarding and running with Bo.

He's been filming his journey and hopes to eventually produce a documentary. He's also working with a group of high-profile New Zealanders to bring knowledge on communication, masculinity and mental health but "contractually" can't say more.

It's a rewarding life, but a tough one. Living off the smell of an oily rag "scares the s**t out of most people".

He won't take any money for haircuts and that mostly works well, with Dowdall being gifted a new campervan when his first vehicle blew up; and offers of food and petrol materialise often when he most needs it. He has currently been sponsored a Harley-Davidson motorcycle by Action Sports Direct.

But it's still not an easy ride.

Until recently, his underwear was being worn bunched at the side and held together by a hair-tie. He hasn't bought anything other than bare necessities in two years.

In times of need, he will pull out a sign on the side of the road: "Haircuts for koha."

"I just sit out there and let my mullet blow in the breeze. As soon as I've got one person in my chair I'm away."

The simplest things in life make him the happiest. He is collecting seeds from pieces of fruit that he eats around the country, and one day when he settles, he'll plant them.

"I've got enough for my lifestyle and Bo's lifestyle. It might not be sparkly, it might be a little thrown together at some points, but that's the excitement. I love my life in the way that I can work outside of every square that everyone else has."

In terms of settling down, his mission takes priority. He can't give a partner as much as he does to his "job" right now. He also knows that fatherhood isn't for him.

He's not sure when he'll stop being The Barter Barber, but is enjoying making a difference in a time when his voice is needed.

Sam Dowdall at Who's Ya Barber with client Ayman Kysten. Photo/ Andrius Kilgour/www.facelessphotography.co.nz
Sam Dowdall at Who's Ya Barber with client Ayman Kysten. Photo/ Andrius Kilgour/www.facelessphotography.co.nz

Last year it was reported that the country's annual provisional suicide number was the highest since records began, rising for the fourth consecutive year, this time to 668 deaths.

"We are such a beautiful place and we have so many awesome bits, but we also have shitty bits that we don't like looking at. I think instead of pretending they're not there, let's face up to them."


Where to get help?

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7) Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7) Youthline: 0800 376 633, Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7) Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm) Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7) Rainbow Youth: 09 376 4155 Samaritans 0800 726 666

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.