Don Ritchie has been awarded a medal for bravery and an Order of Australia (the nation’s second highest honor) for averting hundreds of would-be suicides by approaching people and offering them a cup of tea. ‘I used to sell kitchen scales and bacon cutters,’ he says. Now, ‘I’m trying to sell people life.’
Don Ritchie bought his house for the beautiful views it affords of Sydney Harbor and “the Gap,” the tall sandstone cliffs that guard the harbor mouth. Rather than simply admiring those views, though, he has spent the past 40 or so years persuading tortured souls not to jump to their deaths.
When he moved to the spot with his with his wife, Mr. Ritchie was aware of the Gap’s reputation as Australia’s most notorious suicide spot. But he didn’t think much about it. Almost from Day 1, though, he found himself keeping an eye on the rugged cliff tops. Since then, he has coaxed hundreds of people back from the brink: the desperate, the depressed, and the mentally disturbed.
To some, he’s the “Angel of the Gap.” It’s an accolade that makes him smile with embarrassment. “Now I’m an old angel,” he says during an interview at his home. Through the picture window in their living room, he has a bird’s-eye view of the cliffs, which attract a steady flow of tourists and joggers. If he sees someone lingering a little too long, he crosses the road and offers them a cup of tea.
Over the years, many have followed him home. The self-effacing former salesman shrugs when you ask him why he does what he does. “I’m just trying to save a life,” he says. Over the decades, Ritchie says, many of the faces of the people he’s saved have blurred. But some he still remembers clearly, such as the woman he spotted from his bedroom window early one morning, sitting right on the cliff’s edge. “I quickly got dressed and went over,” he recalls. “I said to her: ‘Why don’t you come over and have a cup of tea?’ She came with me, and Moya made her breakfast. When she got home, she rang to say she was feeling much better. Two or three months later, she walked up the garden path with a magnum of French champagne.”
Dawn O’Neil, chief executive of Lifeline Australia, a counseling service for the suicidal and depressed, says the intervention of someone like Ritchie can be crucial when people are considering killing themselves. “We know from research around the world that most people who are suicidal are ambivalent about dying,” she says. “Most don’t want to die; they just want to end their pain. So there’s a hesitation, and anyone or anything that can distract them, or assist them to get help, can save their lives.”
Those who describe Don say that he has a charisma about him. “He makes people feel safe, secure, and calm…He is one special man.”