Barter Barber

Lessons from The Barter Barber

15 Aug 2019 by Kitomba

Hairdressers and barbers have the tendency to be pseudo counsellors to their clients – it’s a hazard of the job and can be tough to deal with, but few actively seek it out. Sam Dowdall is different. Over two and a half years ago in November 2016 he left everything behind and hit the road in a 1971 Bedford van with his faithful companion, a Bichon Standard Poodle, Bobo seeking out those hard conversations. He speaks especially with men across New Zealand, trading conversation and haircuts for goods and services. We caught up with Sam when he was in his former home, Wellington, to discuss what he’s been up to and what he’s learned along the way. 

Sam talks about his ability to “breakthrough to people” as a gift and himself as a chameleon able to pop into someone else’s world. He describes his journey so far as “eclectic” having spent time with such a diverse range of people including the homeless and senior bank executives – “it’s taught me a lot of empathy”. With highlights including standing on the steps of parliament calling for mental health reform and seeing it actually come through, connecting with large groups of men and coming back three months later to see a difference, he’s learned a lot. Over past the two and a half years, he’s honed his message which “has to be multifaceted to work for a lot of different guys”, and he’s just trying to “find the largest megaphone I can” to get that message out there. Here are some of his nuggets of wisdom.

On supporting clients in the chair:

  • If you can get somebody to talk about passion rather than pain you’re going to have a very different response. It doesn’t mean that you’re stopping them talking but what we’re doing is saying hey let’s keep it positive and we’ll talk about what they love. It takes a lot of the onus off the barber to keep a conversation going as the person’s talking about what they like so they’re just going to talk. The next time they come in, go “hey you work in xyz sector right? Hey, I was wondering how does this part of that work” and they go you have remembered me, you remember what my job is, you remembered what my passion is and you care! And that’s a client for life right there.

On mental health at work

  • This idea that people’s value is determined by how productive they are has made us very sick. I know myself, being a self-employed person for years, that if I’m not working hard I feel like I’m wasting space and time but we actually deserve to have a break.
  • If we’re in an environment that’s causing a difference in mental health then maybe instead of looking at the symptom, which is people are unwell, look at the cause. Things like is everybody able to feel heard in the workplace? Because if you don’t feel heard you feel isolated. 
  • If you have healthy, happy workers you’re going to get more sales so you’ve got to keep everything healthier.

On what mental health is

  • When I say mental health everyone thinks mental illness right away but actually what we’re talking about is how to keep ourselves healthy.
  • When we actually look at ourselves as on the spectrum of mental health we can actually see where we are, and the more we see it the more we know what’s going on.
  • So much of the time we think of mental health as a horrible, negative thing and that’s because mental illness is a big part of it. But if we think of it from a health point of view it’s not as if we go “look how unhealthy I am” all the time. There are heaps of people who go running around this place in spandex going look at how healthy I am! Imagine if we did that with mental health, if we could stand up and say yeah I am just healthy and I am ready to pour some out for somebody else. But because it’s such a personal relationship we don’t talk about it but that’s the kind of thing we need to start doing.

On looking after your mental health

  • Self-care is giving yourself a break so that’s self-awareness and not being scared to tell people that you need to take a break.
  • Sometimes we can feel bad about looking after ourselves but that’s a bit self-sabotaging.
  • One tool I teach is the happiness toolbox. It has three levels to help you feel better throughout the mental health spectrum. At the bottom level when you’re feeling 15% it might be having a strum on the guitar or going for a little walk. At the middle level, it might achievable things like going out to lunch and watching a rugby game or going for a bike ride. That physical exertion and being social might take a bit more but you’re going to get a whole bunch of serotonin and get those endorphins running. The top-level of this box could be going to a festival or doing some international travel or something. It’s a big goal that’s going to take a hell of a lot of spoons but by the time that you get there it is something that you will look back on for a year and you’ll get that same kind of feeling.
  • It only gets easier, and that’s what I wish I could tell so many teenagers that may be experiencing depression for the first time. They don’t think that it’s ever going to get better but it just gets easier and easier the more tools that you have.

On looking after one another

  • We have to break away that kind of isolation. That causes a lot of these mental illnesses people are going through because they’re not feeling heard or understood. 
  • You could be surrounded by people and feel isolated if you’re not heard so the only way to get past this in my eyes is teaching people to break that isolation, teaching people how to get community and how to have a say in community, no matter what that community is.
  • Teaching men how to listen is a really hard one because a lot of us guys feel like we have to fix things. So when somebody comes up to a man and says hey I’ve got this problem, he says well what you’ve got to do is… But what we’re trying to do is stop it and say look you don’t have to fix things, you just have to make someone feel heard and understood and you’ve done your job. Once they start getting that then they want to do the work because it’s not so scary anymore – it doesn’t feel like they’ve been given the responsibility of fixing this.
  • Poor communities, they have community to look after themselves so if somebody’s going down somebody will pick them up really quickly and be like what’s going on here, what can we do as a group? But at the same time, they can’t access a lot of health care or counselling.
  • In higher socioeconomic areas it’s very very insular so instead of having a community they feel like they’re constantly on attack or being attacked and it’s a really hard place to be as well.

To keep up with what Sam The Barter Barber is up to, support him or to reach out to him check him out on Facebook.

If you are struggling with your mental health, the following resources are available in New Zealand and Australia.

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