A man whose gentle interventions are credited with preventing scores, possibly hundreds, of suicides near his Sydney home has died.
A navy veteran, Don Ritchie spent decades scanning the cliffs and ocean from his home on Watsons Bay. But it wasn’t just reminiscing. He lived by a suicide hotspot and over the decades kept watch for people who looked troubled. He talked many of them back from the edge.
“You couldn’t just sit here and watch them,” Mr. Ritchie said in 2011, when he received a ‘local hero’ award from the National Australia Day Council. “I mean, I couldn’t. So I would go out and try and help them.”
The craggy spot where he kept watch – known as the Gap and described in local media as “notorious” – attracts numerous desperate people. There is a fence and posters publicizing help lines, but unconfirmed reports have as many as 50 people committing suicide there annually.
Many who went to the spot in despair, though, walked away after meeting Mr. Ritchie.
“He would often notice people in the landscape, he just had a sensitivity, he could read some people needed help,” his daughter, Sue Ritchie Bereny, told Australia’s Daily Telegraph.
“He would take the dog for a walk and just quietly check things out. It was often a matter of a kind word and he would bring people back to our place for a cup of tea and breakfast.”
Mr. Ritchie, who had no training in suicide prevention or mental illness, was dubbed the Angel of the Gap. He was honoured in 2006 with the Medal of the Order of Australia, the award citing his “service to the community through programs to prevent suicide.” Last year he was named Local Hero in the Australian of the year awards.
“Don’s story touched the hearts of all Australians and challenged each of us to rethink what it means to be a good neighbour,” Tam Johnston, acting CEO of the National Australia Day Council, said on his death.
He is credited officially with 160 interventions over a half-century, but his family believes the number is closer to 500. Others were not receptive to his assistance and some went over the edge with him grabbing futilely at their clothing.
One who died remained graven on his memory. In an article several years ago, he described seeing a man perched on the edge, beyond the fence. He remembered trying to talk with the man, thinking he was making headway, and inviting him back for a cup of tea, or a beer.
“He said ‘no’ and stepped straight off the side,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald. “His hat blew up and I caught it in my hand.”
Mr. Ritchie discovered later that the man, 19, was a neighbour who grew up playing with his grandchildren.
“I don’t believe people want to die, but living is just too hard,” anti-suicide campaigner, Dianne Gaddin, whose daughter Tracy jumped from the Gap, said then. “To me, Don is a guardian angel.’’