Just asking someone if they're okay could save their life

It was a very normal Wednesday morning on the city platform at a Sydney train station last week.

I was there with several hundred of my fellow dead-eyed travellers, sharing the quiet despair of enduring another day in the mines.

We're startled by someone shouting the "c" word, very loudly, somewhere nearby.


Invisible threats

Heads go up. What was that? Hopefully, we might see a bit of interesting drama to break up the boredom. Everyone's trying to work out where it's coming from.

It's obviously a man and he's getting closer. The extreme noise he's making can only be driven by drugs, psychosis, or both.

Now he's coming down the stairs to the platform like a bull at a gate. Suddenly it's not interesting, it's terrifying. The crowd parts like the Red Sea, everyone is instantly very, very, interested in their phones. To make eye contact with him would be opening the portals of hell and inviting danger in.

Pain threshold

He charges to the far end of the platform, takes off his jacket and T-shirt and throws them dramatically on the ground. He's pacing, up and down, screaming about how the only woman he ever loved cheated on him. Someone's gonna get killed, he screams. "No-one's ever loved me, ever!"

It occurs to the whole platform at the same time that we're about to see a man kill himself. The next train through isn't stopping.


I feel my guts twist. I don't want to see this. I don't want to see a man die.

A test of manhood

For years now, I've been writing about the role of men in society, the responsibility we have to reach out and make connections with other men, to ask if they're okay. Six men kill themselves every day in Australia. There's something terribly wrong with men. I'm doing final edits of a book about it, for goodness sake.

Last week's column was about how real alpha males are caring, compassionate "consolers-in-chief." Real men use their size and strength for comfort and love.

So there was nowhere to hide. Every fibre of my being wanted to disappear down a Twitter rabbit hole and not look, not get involved. It's simply a survival instinct.

But after years of preaching about how men should do the right thing, now I had to do the right thing. Bugger.

Reaching out

As usual, it was women who were thinking about intervening first. They were just not sure how. One near me muttered "I don't think he's very happy with women."

Everyone was paralysed. The express was going to blast through at 50kilometres per hour in about two minutes.

So I walked towards him, slowly. I was absolutely terrified. He was so out of control he could have easily thrown my 95 kilos onto the track. I didn't know if he had a weapon or not.

Are you okay?

"Um, you okay, Buddy?" I asked.

No, he was absolutely not okay. "No. One. Has. Ever. Loved. Me!" he screams so loud his voice cracks. "Call the cops, I'm gonna top myself!"

I've already called the police.

"Mate, people care about you. I do. These people do. No-one wants to see you die."

That was very true.

The express came through at a crawl. City Rail knew he was there. He watched the train's bludgeon front, its hungry steel wheels. He looked at me, stepped towards it, stepped back.

"No, no, Mate, help will be here soon. Please!"

"Why? Who cares?"

"Everybody, Bro, everybody!"

"Poor man"

Then six cops arrived, all tasers and guns.

He seemed relieved they were there and submitted meekly to a chat and a search. The cops agreed it was not great to be cheated on but perhaps everyone should calm down now. A disheveled young woman arrived, shivering, hugging herself.

Then the next train came and we all crammed on. The relief that crashed over the platform made everyone suddenly chatty.

"He was totally going to jump."

"Oh my God that was so scary."

"Poor man."

Acts of kindness

Did I just save his life? I'm not for a moment saying I'm some big hero. I considered going home for fresh underwear.

It's just that a human life is worth more than personal discomfort. It's always uncomfortable to reach out, whether the person is a quiet mate or an insane, suicidal stranger.

Bravery, real alpha male bravery, reaching out to another human human individual with compassion and empathy, to help them, with disregard for your own comfort and safety gets easier every time. The rewards are extreme and the fears, almost every time, unfounded.

Trundling towards the windy canyons of North Sydney with my fellow worker bees I didn't really know what I felt or understood what happened. But I know now, more than ever, that being good to other people is good.

With more than 25 years in Australian media, Phil Barker has edited NW and Woman's Day magazines, and published such titles as Vogue, GQ, Delicious, InsideOut and Donna Hay. He is a consultant creative director and communications specialist, currently writing a book on "man stuff" for publisher Allen & Unwin. He is a regular commentator on the lives and style of Australian men.

Follow Phil Barker on Twitter