Nov 06, 2023

Remembering Ritchie: The older Australian who saved over 500 people with a cup of tea

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Mr Ritchie would approach the people in distress, palms outstretched, and gently enquire if there was anything he could do to help or invite them inside for a warm cup of tea and a chat. [Source: Samuel Shepherd]

In times of crisis, we probably think of police, ambulance or even firefighters as the heroic figures you call for help. But for over a decade, help came in the form of Don Ritchie, a retired life insurance salesman who lived across the road from The Gap cliffs in Vaucluse, Sydney where over 100 Australians have ended their lives.

Dubbed the ‘Angel of the Gap’, Mr Ritchie would approach the people in distress, palms outstretched, and gently enquire if there was anything he could do to help or invite them inside for a warm cup of tea and a chat. This simple gesture helped save more than 180 people intent on ending their lives by jumping from the cliffs. Though sources say the unofficial figure is closer to 500 people. 

Don passed away 12 years ago surrounded by his loving family, and as we observed World Mental Health Day on October 10, the man dubbed ‘the Angel of the Gap’ and his legacy serves as a powerful reminder about the importance of kindness and community, but also the importance of supporting the mental health of older Australians. 

Remembering the Life of Don Taylor Ritchie

Born on the 9th of June, 1926, Don Taylor Ritchie attended Scots College before enlisting in the Royal Australian Navy in 1944 as a seaman aboard HMAS Hobart. From his 30s to his 60s Don worked for a multinational firm and built up a successful career in the corporate world before moving into a house on Old South Head Road across from Jacobs Ladder at the southern end of the Gap Park in 1964. 

It was here that Don’s work as the ‘Angel of the Gap’ began. 

This was a time before suicide hotlines or police rescue vans were available to those in crisis. Don would scan the cliffs from the front window of his home, watching for signs of people in distress. He had no official training or a Master’s of Counselling like today’s professionals, but he could still not turn away from those in need. A smile, some kind words and the offer of coming inside for some breakfast, tea or even a beer was enough to coax more than 150 people away from danger. 

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A young Don Ritche and his wife Moya. [Source: Samuel Shepherd]

Though he remained humble about the difference he was making in people’s lives and avoided the limelight, Don and his wife Moya were named Woollahra Council’s Citizens of the Year in 2010. And then in 2016, Don was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his services as a suicide prevention advocate. 

After decades of saving lives, he passed away in May of 2012 at St Vincent’s Hospital at the age of 85, with his beloved wife Moya, daughters Jan, Donna and Sue, and grandchildren by his side.  

In 2013, Don Ritchie Grove was established in a tranquil pocket of Gap Park as a way to honour Don’s extraordinary legacy. 

Mental Health Support for Senior Australians 

Don Ritchie’s extraordinary efforts are a stark reminder of how important it is for those struggling with mental health issues to find support and treatment. But as an older Australian himself, Don is also a reminder for older Australians to prioritise their own mental health and well-being. 

According to data from Everymind, a leading national institute dedicated to the prevention of mental ill-health and suicide funded by the Australian Department of Health National Suicide Prevention Leadership and Support Program, older adults are considered a priority population for suicide prevention strategies.

Statistics released annually by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) show that males aged over 85 years have the highest suicide rate of all age groups (32.7 deaths per 100,000 persons in 2022). This is considerably higher than the suicide rate for all males, which was 18.8 per 100,000 persons. According to data from 2022, females aged over 85 years had the highest suicide rate of all female age groups in Australia. 

Understanding the Risks

Annual ABS data also identified a number of factors that may increase the risk of suicide amongst older Australians, specifically:

  • Grief and bereavement
  • Social isolation
  • Losing the ability to live independently
  • Sensory impairment and losses 
  • Financial difficulty
  • Poor physical health and or/chronic pain
  • Existing mental health conditions
  • Loneliness and isolation
  • Perceiving oneself to be a burden on others and a loss of independence
  • Ageism
  • Retirement and losing a sense of purpose or role in life
  • Loss and bereavement 
  • Losing sense of agency 
  • Elder abuse

Identifying the risk factors is an important step towards putting support systems in place for older members of the community who are vulnerable, but as Professor Emeritus Diego De Leo, an expert in suicide research and prevention from Griffith University found in a recent study, stigma and discrimination can sometimes prevent people from seeking help. 

Professor De Leo’s paper, Late-Life Suicide in an Ageing World, argues that while depression is a known major risk factor for suicidal behaviour (including in older age), it can often be used as the ‘scapegoat’ for any suicidal behaviour, minimising the complexity of an older person’s problems.

“In old age, people tend to be more often viewed with this way of thinking, which reflects anti-aging attitudes that are still widespread, even among doctors themselves,” said Professor De Leo in a press release from Griffith University. 

To help reduce the risk of suicide among the elderly, Professor De Leo believes we should focus on improving their overall social well-being and fight against negative perceptions and discrimination older Australians may face. He emphasises the need to enhance suicide prevention strategies specifically for older people, paying closer attention to things that might increase their risk, like money troubles or feeling isolated. On the flip side, it’s equally important to bolster what keeps them safe, like meaningful social connections. 

Professor De Leo is even exploring the idea of combining social activities with medication treatments for older people. Still, this approach needs more study before it’s widely adopted.

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The Gap sandstone cliffs at South Head. [Source: Samuel Shepherd]

Fighting Stigma & Finding Solutions 

Just as Don didn’t let his lack of training or experience hold him back in helping those in distress, we shouldn’t let stigma hold us back from seeking help when needed. Older Australians, just like everyone else, deserve timely and compassionate mental health support. Initially, acknowledging one’s struggles is the first step. Next, seeking help can be as straightforward as consulting a General Practitioner (GP). Often, GPs can provide referrals to specialists or counselling services tailored for older individuals.

Moreover, many community centres and organisations offer support groups and therapy sessions focusing on the unique challenges older Australians face. These platforms not only offer assistance but also foster a sense of belonging, which can be pivotal in breaking the chains of isolation.

Equally important is educating oneself. There are numerous online resources and helplines, such as Beyond Blue or Lifeline, dedicated to assisting those in need. By gaining knowledge, one can debunk myths surrounding mental health, which in turn diminishes stigma.

Don Ritchie’s legacy is an example of what can be achieved when members of the community support each other, so we should also remember sharing experiences and feelings with trusted friends or family can be therapeutic. They might find that many share similar feelings, breaking the illusion of being alone in their struggles.

A Legacy of Love

In a world where so many of us can feel disconnected and alone at times, Don Ritchie’s legacy of love serves as a reminder there are people out there who do care. While societal stigma and discrimination may exist, older Australians have several pathways to seek and receive mental health support. Remember, seeking help is always a sign of strength, never weakness.

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