The connections all have failed. The future promises nothing.
Three words can save a life
The connections all have failed. The future promises nothing. No-one cares if you live or die. And there’s the sea far below and the rocks.
Then suddenly there’s a stranger there, smiling at you. “Is there something I can do to help you?” he asks.
Next thing you know you’re sitting in a warm kitchen and the stranger’s wife is bringing you a cup of tea and you’re telling them why you could see no point in continuing to live. And just telling someone about it, you begin to feel as if maybe you might like continuing to live after all.
The place described above was Sydney’s notorious suicide leap, The Gap; the time of day or night might have been anywhere in a span of 48 years from 1964 to 2012. The good Samaritans were Don Ritchie and his wife, Moya. During that time, Don Ritchie intercepted 161 people bent on suicide and fetched them home to Moya’s kitchen for a cup of tea, or breakfast, if it was that time of the day.
Don Ritchie, who died in 2012, is the patron saint of R U OK?, an organisation dedicated to suicide prevention which will hold its annual national day with suicide-prevention workshops in cities and towns across Australia on Thursday, September 14. (Please see the links below to see how you can become involved.)
The starting point by which a very complex matter like suicide prevention might be addressed is a simple, three-word question: “Are you OK?” It is a question managers should ask their staff – especially their working carers – if they sense anything is amiss. It is also a question ALL staff should ask each other, when they get any indication that everything is not alright for a work colleague.
It’s the aim of R U OK? to encourage as many people as possible to be on the alert for the signs of despair, to ask that question and to listen patiently to the response.
Thus, the R U OK? Advisory: “Got a niggling feeling that someone you know or care about isn’t behaving as they normally would? Perhaps they seem out of sorts? More agitated or withdrawn? Or they’re just not themselves. Trust that gut instinct and act on it. By starting a conversation and commenting on the changes you’ve noticed, you could help that family member, friend or workmate open up.”
R U OK? offers a range of strategies for responding if there’s a crisis.
The basic strategy is simply to listen. One of the primary causes of suicide is isolation and this is an age when isolation is more common and more profound than ever. People don’t have time for other people these days – they’re too busy. There are just so many alternatives to inter-human connection; people are so engaged with their ‘communication’ devices (so called) they often can’t be bothered with, or don’t have time for, face-to-face communication.
Yet, just having someone listen to them might bring somebody who’s become disconnected back from the brink.
Suicide is epidemic across Australia. According to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, it’s the leading cause of death amongst people in the 15-44 age-group and the second leading cause of death amongst those in the 45-54 group.
R U OK? was founded by film-maker Janina Nearn and advertising executive Gavin Larkin in 2009. They originally set out to make a documentary to raise awareness but soon came to see that a national campaign was needed.
For Gavin Larkin, it was a strange redemption after his father’s death by suicide in 1995. If someone had asked his father, Barry, are you OK?, so he told the ABC’s Australian Story, maybe he wouldn’t have killed himself. Gavin brooded over it for 14 years and finally realised he must actually do something.
At the time of the ABC interview in September, 2011, Gavin had only two weeks to live. He told Australian Story: “There’s a ton of things I’m not proud of in my life. And I’m really glad that before it was too late I really got my act together and learned some lessons about what’s important.”
He had been diagnosed with an aggressive lymphoma in February, 2010. Only weeks later, his 12-year-old son, Gus, was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Gus was an inspiration: “If your 12-year-old son can be such a stud about it and do it so peacefully and so graciously and like such a gentleman, then you can do it too,” Gavin said before his death.
A work colleague described Gavin as a ‘typical alpha male’ and Gavin himself admitted he was ‘a bit of a prick’. But his marketing skills and his contacts were invaluable in creating the national day of suicide awareness.
“I’m no saint,” Gavin told the ABC. “I’ve made all the great mistakes that humans make and I’ve been a prick to some people throughout my life.”
R U OK?, which he called ‘a wonderful thing’, squared the books: “Making sure that it lived and breathed on its own, regardless of what was happening to me and what may happen to me, is very important. We’ve been able to get 30 per cent awareness across the country. One in 10 Australians this year (2011) had an R U OK? conversation.”
R U OK? conversations are needed now more than ever. The latest ABS statistics available are for 2015.
The suicide toll for that year was 3,027. That’s 12.6 people in every 100,000, eight people every day, one every three hours. Eighty-seven of these deaths were children under 17.
The figures indicated that men were more than three times more likely to die by suicide than women and men aged 85 and over had the highest rate, 40 men in every 100,000 in that age-group.
Notwithstanding the figures, the majority of suicides were people in their late teens and twenties. Indigenous people died by suicide at more than double the rate of non-Indigenous people. Indigenous children between five and 17 died of suicide at a rate of almost 10 in every 100,000, compared with a rate of 1.8 for non-Indigenous children.
“We as a sector and a community are failing our most vulnerable and we must do more and do better,” Lifeline Australia’s chief executive, Peter Shmigel, said at the time those statistics were released.
“This means starting a national conversation about how we respond differently. While we’re prescribing more medication for mental illness than ever before – including a doubling in the rate of antidepressant use since 2000 – we are not doing enough to combat social factors that lead so many to choose death over living.”
Mr Shmigel cited Lifeline survey statistics indicating that 60 per cent of Australians quite frequently felt lonely and said that this was a key issue.
“After all, there’s no magic pill for loneliness, social isolation, relationship breakdowns and other personal crises.
“We need to focus on asking people less of ‘what’s wrong with you?’ and more of ‘what’s happening with you and how can I unconditionally support you?’”
Which is precisely what R U OK? is doing.
Whether it's a morning tea, a sausage sizzle or a team picnic, you can encourage people to be part of your awareness and fundraising efforts. Register your event so the R U OK? team can support your efforts. For useful resources (such as posters, event ideas, etc.), simply download the Event Pack or visit the Every Day Resources page on the R U OK? website.
To find a September 14 R U OK? Day workshop in your neighbourhood, visit: www.ruok.org.au
[NB: Don Ritchie died in May, 2012. The 2017 winner of the annual Don Ritchie Award will be announced on R U OK? Day on September 14. Gavin Larkin died in September, 2011, a week after that year’s R U OK? Day. Gus Larkin died in October, 2013.]