For decades, Don Ritchie got up each morning and cast his gaze out the window of his home in Watsons Bay. He’d see sunlight glinting off the placid waters that surround the Sydney suburb, and strips of seafoam outlining a tongue of land jutting out just beyond Australia’s famed harbor.
Gazing out at landscapes and seascapes came naturally to him. He’d served as a lookout during his years with the Royal Australian Navy in World War II, standing on the bridge of the ship and scanning the horizon for signs of danger.
But from 1964 until his death in 2012, he was on the lookout for danger of another sort: people who looked like they were about to commit suicide.
For more than 50 years, he and his wife lived directly across from The Gap, a series of rocky outcroppings that plunge hundreds of feet and disappear into the churning waters below. Sadly, it’s a well-known spot for those seeking to end their lives because of medical, family, mental health, and other issues.
Over the years, though, he helped talk (and sometimes tackle) the destitute from the cliff’s edge while his wife, Moya, called for help. Don also aided with recovery efforts, helping emergency personnel to retrieve the bodies of those he couldn’t save.
In one photo, he’s shown struggling with a woman at the cliff’s edge, his own body providing the only barrier between her and the sea below.
Don couldn’t save them all, but he singlehandedly prevented at least 160 people from dying by suicide simply by smiling, then engaging them in conversation.
He worked as a life insurance salesman after World War II, and when Moya asked one time what he says to talk them away from the cliffs, “he said, ‘Oh, I go over there and sell them life.’”
I’m offering them an alternative, really. I always act in a friendly manner. I smile. Over the years, I’ve spoken to many, many of them — just a way of saying, ‘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.’ To get them away from their mind, to get them away from going over while I’m here.
In 2009, a few years before his death, the “Angel of The Gap” was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia in recognition for his work.
While it’s never easy to discuss, suicide and mental health are serious issues that affect millions around the world. Thanks to Don and others like him, those who have decided that ending their lives is easier than carrying on got at least one final opportunity to talk things out. And for many, that’s all it really takes to change their minds.
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