Medical Program Assistant | Mental Health Services
Have you ever been in a situation where you noticed something risky happening and you felt someone should do something? Did you act or intervene? Why or why not?
In these situations, we are bystanders. A bystander is someone who observes a behavior that could lead to harm. They are not directly involved but have the choice to intervene, speak up, or do something to challenge or interrupt the behavior.
But intervening as a bystander can be harder than it sounds. There are many social norms and forces at play that keep people from breaking the bystander silence. Other people’s actions can strongly influence us.
When there are lots of bystanders around to witness harm, we assume someone else will take care of the problem. This is known as the diffusion of responsibility or the bystander effect. We might also assume that if no one else is doing anything, it must mean that we ourselves have misread the problem. Watch an example of the bystander effect here:
Think about how this applies to early warning signs of sexual assaults that happen on campus. Even when we recognize that someone is being preyed on or too incapacitated to provide consent, we may just “go with the flow” and ignore what’s happening. Sometimes this is out of fear or embarrassment for causing a scene or being a wet blanket. But as Badgers, we need to look out for each other. We can create a new positive bystander effect—if one person steps up to help, eventually so will others.
Here’s an easy way to remember how to intervene: The Three D’s
- Direct: Check in yourself. This intervention is exactly what it sounds like. Speak to the people involved directly. “Are you ok?” “Do you know this person?” “Hey, knock it off.” “That’s not cool.” “Why don’t you just leave them alone.”
- Distract: This is a great strategy when you don’t feel comfortable being direct, or maybe you’re nervous to escalate the situation. Create a diversion to diffuse the situation. Introduce yourself, even if you have to pretend you know the person from an Anthropology class. Spill a drink. Tell the person their friends are looking for them. Anything to change the tone of the conversation or give the person who’s in trouble an “out.”
- Delegate: Sometimes you’re not always the best person to intervene on your own. A better strategy might be to use a group of friends to help out. Can someone distract the person being sketchy while someone else gets the other person help? Can you get a bartender’s or bouncer’s attention and alert them to someone who’s being predatory? Or ask the host of a house party to close and lock the bedroom doors so no one can be isolated there.
So remember: Direct, Distract, Delegate. Be a responsible citizen and be an active bystander to create a safe community for all Badgers. No one has to do everything, but everyone has to do something.
Written by Jeremy O’Brien, a senior at UW-Madison. Jeremy is a Project Assistant at UHS EVOC.