“Can I Help You in Some Way?” Man’s Question Saves 160+ Lives.
Don Ritchie is The "Angel of The Gap"
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TW: This piece talks about suicide.
Today’s How to Live newsletter is about another man’s rescue mission. One that began with a simple question to someone who had lost all hope.
“Can I Help You in Some Way?” Man’s Question Saves 160+ Lives.
In the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney, Australia, spectacular ocean cliffs made from Sydney Sandstone overlook the Tasman Sea. The cliff’s dramatic drop-off into the water below makes the view a popular tourist destination known as The Gap.
But since the 1800s, The Gap has been known to locals for something bleaker than its spectacular view—suicides. For a long time, only a three-foot fence separated a person from the edge. In 2010, local officials recorded one person a week attempted to end their life at The Gap.
In 1964, a quiet 38-year-old life insurance salesman named Don Ritchie, and his wife Moya, bought a house on Old South Head Road, in eyeshot of The Gap.
A lookout in the Australian Navy during World War II, Ritchie knew he’d never tire of the view.
The houses overlooking The Gap
They’d been in the house briefly when he noticed that some people who stood on the edge suddenly disappeared.
It didn’t take him long to realize where they’d gone and why they’d come to The Gap in the first place.
Because of his proximity, when rescue teams came to The Gap, Ritchie would help them.
Until he became the rescue mission.
Ritchie knew he couldn’t just sit there and watch people disappear. He sensed his presence might be of value. So, every morning, he began scanning the cliffs from his window, and when he saw someone standing precariously close to the edge, he grabbed his dog and headed out for a stroll toward the cliffs.
Upon arrival, he smiled and gently asked, “Can I help you in some way? Do you want to talk about what’s worrying you?”
He invited them inside for tea or a beer. Anything to get them to reconsider, to buy them more time.
Sometimes the smile was all it took for a person to turn around, gather their shoes or wallets set neatly on the rocks nearby, and follow him home. Other times, he wasn’t successful, despite struggling to grab at someone’s shirt as they fell over the ledge.
He had no experience or training in psychology or mental health. He knew nothing about suicide or depression and never tried to counsel anyone. All he did was smile and offer them a chance to reconsider.
After tea or a home-cooked meal from Moya, and before they left, Ritchie asked them to commit to talking to a professional, see a doctor, their priest, or someone with expertise in the field.
A trained salesperson, Ritchie sold insurance policies that paid out only upon the policyholder’s death.
What he sold people on the cliffs was life itself.
When he began asking this question to those who’d lost hope, it was 1964, and mental health, much less suicide, was not a common conversation. In addition to a stigma, there was a misguided belief that broaching the topic of suicide would increase the risk.
But Ritchie wasn’t burdened by these details. From where he sat, he felt he had no choice but to offer a helping hand.
For half a century, Don Ritchie walked to The Gap to save people’s lives. Over time, he began working with the police and rescue teams by signaling to his wife discreetly when he needed help, and she would make the necessary call.
His calm manner and empathetic approach worked well, and he’s credited with saving hundreds of lives (official counts say 160+, but his family says it’s closer to 500). He became known as the “Angel of The Gap.”
In 2006, Ritchie was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his rescues. He and Maya were named “Citizens of the Year” in 2010 by the local government authority responsible for the gap.
Many people whose lives he’d helped save wrote to thank him, and they corresponded until his death at 85 in 2012.
People often wondered if life was depressing, living where he did, but that’s not how he saw things.
We’ve been involved in lots of these incidents, and it’s just become part of a way of life for me to sort of sell them the idea that why not come over and talk about it and see how we can fix it.
Don Ritchie’s selfless acts prove there is power in listening, extending a hand, and having empathy for those you don’t understand. When someone is most alone, many fear saying the wrong thing and making matters worse, so they say and do nothing. Research shows that talking to someone in danger actually reduces the chances of them taking their lives.
You don’t need a degree in clinical psychology or a personal history of depression or anxiety to help someone suffering. All you need is genuine care to offer someone hope by asking if you might help them in some way.
Have you heard of Don Ritchie? If you know of anyone else like him, please let me know in the comments.
Until next week, I remain…
To learn more about SUICIDE PREVENTION, here are some valuable resources:
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