mental wellbeing

How To Be A Bystander

I went to a training course last week to learn about what I can do to improve my own wellbeing and the wellbeing of others. We talked about unconscious stereotyping, addressing people from minority backgrounds with respect and how their needs might differ from our own. Eventually, the speaker began talking about being a bystander to a negative situation. This really caught my attention. What could I possibly do to help? How do I know if I should intervene?

She told us the story of an 18 year old girl named Emily who ended her life after being physically and emotionally abused by her boyfriend. There were people in Emily’s life who knew that this abuse was going on, including friends. She even reached out to a student resident assistant before dropping it so as not to get her boyfriend in trouble. It is easy, with hindsight, to say ‘someone should have done something!’ but this has nothing to do with blame. I think we have all been guilty of standing by because we didn’t know what to do or how but it is this behaviour that allows things to escalate.

Take cases of severe sexual assault. It is, of course, true that not all men are rapists; if we take the whole population of men, the number who have sexually assaulted women is fairly small. But these offenders are protected by the many who affirm this behaviour with their catcalling and their ass-smacking and their ‘it’s a compliment’, and the people who witness this and do nothing, say nothing, never speak up just re-affirm this unsettling thinking. Our silence says, ‘It’s okay, you won’t get in trouble for this’.

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I’m not saying that it’s always a good idea to confront someone who is harassing another person. It’s not. In a lot of situations, it could make things worse – the harasser could get angrier, become more violent towards the victim or even target you – which is why I’m going to tell you the steps I learned to figure out what to do.

First, recognise the situation. Is there someone at risk or someone who is being threatening? Am I reading the situation correctly? Is it safe for me to intervene? Second, ask for help! Check if there is anyone around you who might be able to help diffuse the situation. This could make it safer for you to do so. Third, consider your group size. Is there enough people to safely intervene? As the saying goes, there is strength in numbers, so please do not try and approach on your own! Finally, be a role model. Often, people won’t do anything to help because they see others not doing anything, but you can be the person to pave the way (just not alone!). 

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I think it is important to point out here that being a helpful bystander does not always mean jumping to the rescue during a bad situation. Sometimes you can be more helpful afterwards by providing support, showing empathy and helping someone deal with a situation.

This is especially true now, with rates of sexual assault at university being horrifically high. A recent survey by Revolt Sexual Assault found that 62% of people who had gone to university had been sexually assaulted, with this rising to 70% when considering females alone. Outside of uni, there is evidence to suggest that men experience more emotional abuse from their partner compared to women whilst women reported more forced isolation.

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Being aware of these facts helps us appreciate the weight of the problem. No more ‘oh, it can’t be that bad,’ no more ‘it’s not my problem.’ We live in a society that has turned a blind eye under the pretence that it’s not our business. But violence, and especially relationship violence, is our business. Looking away is what allows things to spiral out of control until it’s too late. Don’t let it be.

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness month. Stand together. Help each other. Break the cycle.

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Words by Jessica Yang for Anthem Online.

Sources: The Guardian (2017), Revolt Sexual Assault survey (2018), Karakurt and Silver (2013) Emotional abuse in intimate relationships: The role of gender and age.

Image sources: itsonus.org, Sarah Newey for Revolt Sexual Assault, Google Images