The Angel of the Gap

For almost half a century, Don Ritchie (1927-2012) lived near a well-known Sydney suicide hotspot – a cliff called ‘the Gap – at the entrance to Sydney Harbour. He reached out to people in their darkest moments as they contemplated ending their death.

Who is Don Ritchie?

Don Ritchie married his wife Moya in 1952. They had three daughters, Jan, Donna and Sue, and five grandchildren. They moved to Old South Head Road, Watsons Bay in 1964, right across the road from the southern end of the Gap Park.  He was 85 when he died after a battle with cancer.

When World War II broke out, Ritchie served in the Royal Australian Navy on HMAS Hobart and was on the ship in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered in 1945.

In 2006 Ritchie received the Medal of the Order of Australia for his rescues.

What can Don Ritchie teach us about suicide prevention?

Don Ritchie had no training in suicide prevention and yet he is acknowledged to have stopped 160 people from plunging to their deaths. Many believe this figure to be a conservative estimate.

I recently wrote, “Only people who understand suicide are capable of preventing it.”  Ritchie knew enough to be able to prevent people from taking their lives. But what did he know?

My research included articles written about him and several recorded interviews. What emerged was

Don Ritchie’s ‘Seven Proven Principles in Suicide Prevention.’

1. Have a plan:

Ritchie observed that this rugged part of the coastline was popular and a lot of people came to look at the view. Sometimes he noticed a person standing near the cliff’s edge. When he looked again they would be gone. Ritchie said, “You can’t just sit there and watch them. You gotta try and save them. It’s pretty simple.”

I admire this man’s courage and persistence. He could have looked away. He could have chosen not to get involved. He could have become resentful that people chose to end their life in his neighbourhood, within 50 metres of his front door. Instead, he committed himself to do what he could.

Ritchie continued to live at the house until his death in 2012 – he had no qualms about staying on despite the constant stream of suicide attempts. While most other people would have moved out, he never considered it to be a burden: “I think, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that we live here and we can help people?’” he used to say.

Every plan must have a purpose and for Don Ritchie, it was about saving lives.

2. Be aware:

Observation was a key factor in Ritchie’s approach. He had learnt this skill while serving in the Navy. One of his tasks was to keep watch on the bridge. He was responsible for the safe navigation of the ship. The safety of all those on board was important to him.

But you need to know what you are looking for; you need to know how to identify people at risk.

Experience taught Ritchie to watch for behaviours that would suggest the person was contemplating suicide. They would be alone, appear disturbed or anxious, not engaging with their surroundings, unwilling to move on, and standing too close to the edge.

3. Utilise your training:

Ritchie worked as a Life Insurance salesman. During the day he would talk to people about making adequate preparations for the uncertainties of life. When he returned home he would often find himself talking to vulnerable people who were struggling to navigate the inner turmoil.

Ritchie had learnt the art of conversation. He had learnt how to make the person feel important. He had learnt how to encourage people to express their desires. He had learnt how to support people to make wise choices.

He was a friendly, compassionate person. He was a tall, gentle man with an engaging smile. He was genuine.

Ritchie would say “I was a salesman for most of my life. I am selling them an alternative. I am selling them life.”

4. Understand their thinking:

Ritchie learnt that people contemplating suicide are not able to regulate their thoughts. They see themselves as a failure, a disappointment, and a burden. They often feel isolated, not knowing who to talk to. They often feel ambivalent, not knowing what is preferable, life or death. They often feel desperate, desiring a quick resolution.

Ritchie was offering them another option, an escape route. He was offering them a choice, a new chance at life. And as he said, “Most people appreciate having someone to talk to about life.”

5. Adopt a non-threatening approach:

Ritchie recognised the importance of being relaxed and exuding confidence. He presented as someone who could be trusted. His calm voice and sympathetic manner generally eased the tension.

Ritchie would wander over with his palms facing up, smile and say something like, “Is there something I could do to help you?”

His goal was to encourage conversation. His method was to communicate concern. He would say, “What are you doing over here? Please come and talk to me. Come over and have a cup of tea, come and have a beer.”

6. Use physical restraint if necessary:

More often than not Ritchie’s quiet approach worked, though on some occasions he risked his own life by restraining the more determined from making their final leap. In his younger years, Ritchie would climb the fence to hold people back. On one occasion Ritchie struggled with a woman inches from the edge. She was determined to launch herself over the side. Had she been successful he would have gone with her.

7. Don’t allow failure to diminish your commitment:

Ritchie couldn’t prevent all the suicides. On one occasion he was speaking to a quiet young man who “just kept looking ahead.” Ritchie talked to him for about half an hour and thought he was making some headway. He invited the young man to come over to his house for a drink. The young man said ‘no’ and stepped straight off the side. His hat blew up and Ritchie caught it in his hand

But he made a conscious effort not to let those deaths haunt him. He often remarked that he tried his best with each person, and if he lost one, he just accepted that there was nothing more he could have done.

A pocket of tranquillity has been set aside in Watsons Bay as a memorial to Don Ritchie. The Don Ritchie Grove is a place where people might find the courage and strength to go on and continue with life.

Suicide prevention measures have recently been introduced at Gap Park. They include cameras, emergency phones and new fences. A Lifeline poster has these words,

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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