The Angel of the Gap

Don Ritchie (1925-2012) was an ordinary Australian who did extraordinary things, and truly personified what it means when it is stated that 'suicide prevention is everybody's business'. Don lived at the infamous 'Gap', with his wife Moya, for over fifty years.

In situations where most would turn away, particularly in earlier decades, Don would take action. Everyday, Don would keep watch for people who might need help. For years he coaxed people away from the cliffside by inviting them back to his home for a chat over a cup of tea.

During Don's life, he saved approximately 500 people from completing suicide.Don once wisely said "always remember the power of the simple smile, a helping hand, a listening ear and a kind word."

Don was named Australia's Local Hero in the 2011 Australian of the Year awards and was also the recipient of a Medal of the Order of Australia.

Don & Moya Ritchie

As told by their daughter, Sue Ritchie-Bereny

Don & Moya moved into their home at Watsons Bay that looked out across the cliffs to the entrance of Sydney harbour in the 1960s. Through his love of the sea, sailing, ships and the Navy, Don was drawn to sit on his balcony for a short time most mornings and evenings noting the ships entering and leaving the harbour. On one of these occasions he realised that he was witness to a person contemplating suicide at a low point in their life. He had said, that when he realised what was happening, he was not able to turn his back and simply walk away and do nothing. He was unable to allow a person to sit there alone without going to see if they were ok. So he took the dog for a walk over to the park and was able to strike up a conversation with the person. Many times Don found himself in the same situation, talking with and listen to someone that was experiencing difficulties in their life. He was often able to convince them to reconsider their situation by offering some alternative ways of thinking, to reflect, and giving them the chance to realise that, the next morning, things might look better. The more often this happened, the more Don realised the seriousness of the situation and would suggest that the person needed to speak to someone that was experienced in the these areas, such as a general practitioner, a social worker or councillor. If they were agreeable, he might invite them back to the house to sit on the balcony and have a cup of tea before going home, or might walk with them to the bus stop. On occasion when Don felt he could not help the person, he would return home and contacted the police and explain the situation to them. Don never revealed the discussions he had with people, and kept their confidence. He was very careful not to discuss his experiences. He was aware of their need for privacy and to be able to put the past behind them. Sometimes those he had helped contacted him later, to let him know how they were going and to thank him for his intervention and kindness that had got them through. In recent years, Don has been awarded an OAM, Australian of the Year Local Hero 2011, and Woollahra Council Citizen of the Year in recognition of his services to the prevention of suicide. The image most people have of Don is as an elderly man with a cup of tea in his hand. But he was a young man in his 30s when he first approached a person in need, and he continued this through his life into his 40’s, 50’s and even on into his 80’s. He had a full and busy life, with a wife, three children and was a successful businessman, but he had a kindness that meant he made the time, and took action, to help others.

Out of the Shadows into the Light

Penned by Don prior to his passing in 2012

My name is Don Ritchie and I have been living at Watson's Bay, in Sydney, for over 50 years. I live near the cliffs in eastern Sydney, at the entrance to Sydney Harbour, which is known for its beauty and for suicides. I have been helping people here for over 50 years, talking them out of committing suicide. There have been a lot of them. It can be very effective just talking to people. My ambition has always been to just get them away from the edge, to buy them time, to give them the opportunity to reflect, and to give them the chance to realize that things might look better the next morning. I try to get them to make the decision not to suicide, not now, not then and there. I don't council them. I don't tell them what they should and shouldn't do in their lives. I wouldn't know, and I wouldn't want that responsibility. All I try to do is to get them away from the edge. I do try to get them to seek help from professionals, for example Lifeline, the Black Dog Institute, Beyond Blue or a local doctor. Sometimes they say they have tried that but it didn't work, it didn't help, so I encourage them to try again, with another professional, to get another opinion, another perspective. I've had wonderful feedback from people who have come back from the edge. That feedback is really rewarding, knowing that the action I took changed the course of their lives and got them back on track. Sometimes I've had feedback from people whose loved ones have died by suicide thanking me for being there with them, for trying to talk them out of it. Interestingly I've also been thanked by people who appreciate the ramifications for others when someone dies by suicide and appreciates the heartache and difficulty that is avoided when someone decides to live. For years and years and years, the suicides have never been spoken about, in case it encouraged copy-cat suicides. When it came out in the open about what I had been doing this for all these years, a friend that I had known since I was eight, I'm 85 now, spoke about how he never had any idea of what I had done, such was the taboo nature of suicide. But attitudes are changing. The approach of silence is being re-thought and I am being encouraged to share my story to help other people realise how common depression and suicidal tendencies are, and to let people know that there are complete strangers out there, like myself, who are willing and able to help them get through that dark time and to come out the other side. I am always very conscious not to speak of individual cases, not to discuss what is not on the public record, in order to respect privacy, and the privacy of loved ones, in order to help them move on with their lives. Now that it has come out, I see it as a very positive thing. I think it helps people to realise how common depression, suicide and attempted suicide is, and how it affects all ages, sexes, races and socio economic groups. I think it also helps people to realise the power of a kind word, a simple smile, a moment to listen, a helping hand, and that they shouldn't be afraid to speak to someone who they think might be in trouble, in need. It's important not to be too busy to miss moments that are really important. Experience as a salesman and in the navy during the Second World War probably helped me to be able to talk and connect with people. But all I do is smile, be kind and ask them if I can help them in some way. I listen and offer them an alternative, typically to come with me to have a cup of tea. My wife Moya greets them and gives them something to eat. She provides and strengthens an atmosphere of support. It's been a very rewarding experience throughout my life. The letters and expressions of thanks are greatly appreciated, to know that people are doing well. One little painting left anonymously in my letterbox included the words "Ritchie, you are truly an angel that walks among us, bless you" which made me feel proud. I feel it is a privilege to live in this beautiful place. It has given me the opportunity to help people and have a positive effect on other people's lives. I hope that knowing what I do, and how I have done it, is of assistance to others. Don Ritchie Source: http://www.outoftheshadows.org.au/Home/My-Story/Don-Ritchie

About the NSW Don Ritchie Awards for Suicide Prevention

The NSW 'Don Ritchie' Awards for Suicide Prevention serve to honour the achievements of one individual and one organisation or community group, each year, that have worked to improve understanding, awareness, service provision and a sense of community to prevent acts of self harm and suicide.

Award recipients are appointed as NSW ambassadors for suicide prevention to share their knowledge and expertise with others across the state.

In its first year, Ann-Maree Hartley (individual) and RU OK? Day (organisation) took out the award.