The Suicide Watchmen

Via the Anchoress comes the story of an Australian man who patrols the cliff across the street from his home, hoping to coax potential jumpers away from the edge:

In those bleak moments when the lost souls stood atop the cliff, wondering whether to jump, the sound of the wind and the waves was broken by a soft voice. “Why don’t you come and have a cup of tea?” the stranger would ask. And when they turned to him, his smile was often their salvation.

For almost 50 years, Don Ritchie has lived across the street from Australia’s most notorious suicide spot, a rocky cliff at the entrance to Sydney Harbour called The Gap. And in that time, the man widely regarded as a guardian angel has shepherded countless people away from the edge.

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What some consider grim, Ritchie considers a gift. How wonderful, the former life insurance salesman says, to save so many. How wonderful to sell them life.

“You can’t just sit there and watch them,” says Ritchie, now 84, perched on his beloved green leather chair, from which he keeps a watchful eye on the cliff outside. “You gotta try and save them. It’s pretty simple.”

Ritchie doesn’t keep track of how many lives he has saved, though official estimates put it at 160 people. He doesn’t try to reason with them, or pry into their situation — just offer a friendly smile, and an alternative. “‘They often don’t want to die, it’s more that they want the pain to go away,’ [psychologist Gordon] Parker says. ‘So anyone that offers kindness or hope has the capacity to help a number of people.’”

suicide.jpgThat same principle seems to be behind the recent formation of the Facebook group “please don’t jump.” After someone submitted this note to the PostSecret Web site confessing his depression and plan to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, readers took it upon themselves to show the writer that he wasn’t alone. The nearly 7,000 fans of the Facebook page are essentially doing what Ritchie does — offering a friendly (if virtual) hand in a time of crisis. [EDIT: Frank Warren of PostSecret says the group now numbers 59,000.]

Of course, that action doesn’t look the same in every culture. This American Life aired a segment on China’s own “suicide watchman,” Chen Sah, who patrols a four-mile-long bridge in Naan-jing that is famous for the number of people who try to commit suicide there. But Mr. Chen’s method is a bit… different. Listen to the fascinating story here

It’s incredible to ponder what simply acknowledging a stranger can do.



  • Margaret Cabaniss

    Margaret Cabaniss is the former managing editor of Crisis Magazine. She joined Crisis in 2002 after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in English Literature and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She now blogs at

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