One of my favorite 80’s songs is In the Air Tonight. I mean, who doesn’t love Phil Collins? Over its 35 year span, mystery has whirled around the song meaning. Urban legend is, Phil watched a man on the shore of a river, standing idly by while another man drowned and did nothing to save him. By the time Phil rushed to his aid, it was too late. Later, he discovered the identity of the man and sent him concert tickets. He sat him in the front row, under a spotlight, and sang In The Air Tonight. Letting him and the world know—I saw you that night. I watched, while you let another man die.
The story turned out false—confirmed by Phil himself. Nevertheless, the song became one of those unexplained phenomenons, much like the idea of an “innocent” bystander.
There is nothing innocent about watching another person suffering and deciding not to help. However, the onlooker often faces the dilemma of carrying the responsibility of the sufferer and accurately discerning the situation to one that can be safely undertaken.
Bystander Apathy or Bystander Effect is a term coined by Psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latane, after a series of lab experiments, following the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, who was raped and killed in front of her apartment complex. Despite her screams for help to ward off her attacker, none of the residents in her large apartment complex came to her aid, including calling for help.
Bystander Apathy refers to an individual that judges an emergency situation based upon group reaction or lack thereof. Our moral obligation to the sufferer decreases, based upon the number of bystanders in the group. Basically, the more people in a group, the less likely we are to respond because the responsibility gets distributed among group members. Often times, if we see a problem or witness an emergency, we assume that someone else will call for help. The likeliness of us intervening wanes even further, if we don’t notice others reacting.
In the article, Why Don’t We Help, Psychologist Melissa Burkley suggests that pluralistic ignorance is the reason most people don’t intervene. We may ask ourselves Am I witnessing an emergency? If so, why isn’t anyone else reacting? Burkley explains:
For example, imagine you are at the community pool and you see a child splashing wildly in the water. Your first instinct would probably be to look around you and see how others are responding. If others appear shocked and are yelling for help, you may conclude that the child is drowning and dive in to help. But, if those around you are ignoring the child or laughing, you may conclude that the child is just playing around. To avoid looking foolish, you would probably just continue watching and would fail to dive in and help.
Burkley advises us to use instinct when it comes down to ambiguous situations.
If you think there is even a possibility that someone is in need, act on it. At worst, you will embarrass yourself for a few minutes, but at best, you will save a life. Second, if you are unfortunate enough to find yourself the victim and are in need of help, make sure you make it clear to those around you that this is an emergency situation. For instance, self-defense instructors will often tell women that if they are being attacked by a man, they should yell out FIRE instead of “help.” This is because the word “help” is used in many situations that are non-life-threatening so when we hear it, it does not automatically indicate that there is an emergency.
This is partly why those suffering don’t seek help. Not because people are desensitized to those asking for help, but to suffering itself.
For five years, I worked in downtown Los Angeles assisting the homeless and witnessed the restoration of the arts and fashion districts into a splitting image of a SoHo, New York neighborhood—with expensive lofts, boutiques, and restaurants. Investors thoughtlessly built around the burgeoning epidemic of homelessness on Skid Row—a notoriously impoverished district in downtown. Residents jog, walk dogs, shop, and eat as if the homeless issue doesn’t exist. Not their problem? It’s easy to overlook such a tragedy when investors and city officials satiate residents with amenities, making it acceptable to ignore.
Bystander Apathy relates to an act of crime committed against another person. However, this post is referring to apathy towards another transgression: Suicide. Although not illegal under U.S law, suicide is still considered an ethical offense.
Suicide is often difficult to understand because victims also act as the aggressor. And equally responsible, are friends and family close to the victim, who claimed they were unaware of any suffering.
Misconceptions about suicidal people become excuses for some not to help. One of the biggest errors in judgement is to avoid bringing up self-harm to a suicidal person thinking it might push them over the edge.
Most suicidal people desire help and are often ambivalent about wanting to die. They want to live, just not in their current condition.
People also have the tendency not to believe a suicidal person, if they can’t see their suffering.
Unfortunately, I’m a little too familiar with suicide having experienced it on all levels. As a former functioning depressed person, symptoms may not be noticeable.
To be clear, depressed people have jobs, families, hobbies, and laugh like everyone else. This is why people often say, “I didn’t know anything was wrong.” Or, “he/she seemed fine.”
Individuals struggling with mental and emotional health disorders aren’t aliens—but coping with some form of trauma, physical pain, mental illness, or shame while trying to manage daily tasks and appear stable.
So, how do we recognize a crisis with no obvious signs of physical suffering?
There are common behaviors, in teens and older adults that indicate suicidal tendencies:
- Putting affairs in order
- Sudden mood changes
- Giving away possessions
- Substance abuse
- Changes in sleep
These are the loudest signs a person can show aside from attempting to self-harm.
Sometimes we ignore signs of suffering because we claim to know the person. Not everyone will talk about killing themselves, engage in reckless behavior, or make attempts to self-harm.
I told people in my circle, I struggled with depression, apparently, no one thought it was a big deal. Julie was the only person to ask directly, if I was going to kill myself. I assured her I wasn’t. That doesn’t mean I valued my life or cared whether I lived or died.
Suicide can also be a ‘slow kill.’ Engaging in unhealthy or reckless behaviors like substance abuse, not obeying speed limits or laws, criminal activity, overeating, and promiscuity are more ambiguous signs.
Don’t think you know a person well enough to judge their intentions. You don’t know what people will do under psychological distress. Yes, there are some that fight through their circumstances, like me, but also ones that succumb to them.
At 6’7, Michael towered over everyone in high school. A gentle giant with a big heart—always smiling and giving out hugs. He drew people in with his playful demeanor. But that didn’t stop his toughness on the football field. He had everything going for himself—at least, that’s what Coach Harrison and I tried to convey one afternoon during history class.
Michael called Coach Harrison anguished saying “he couldn’t live like this.” When people found out he was gay, his world would end. Coach Harrison reiterated that everybody loved him and no one cared. He offered support to help through his crisis. Grieved by shame, Michael wailed out in agony. Coach Harrison had another emergency, so he handed me the phone. I tried to talk him down with calm, positive words, but he rejected everything I said. He kept saying he didn’t have anybody. Coach Harrison grabbed the phone and begged for him not to do anything he would regret. “Oh shit. Mike! Fuck!” Coach Harrison ran out into the hall. I jumped from my desk. “Mr. Harrison, what happened?” “The fucking phone went dead,” he shouted!
I found out the next day that Coach sent help to his house, but Michael gave up and shot himself in the head.
Recently, I learned that reasoning or using logic does not actually help like we may think. Charlotte Walker, writer, mother, and author of blog purplepersuasion, lists Ten Things Not to Say to a Suicidal Person. Among the most common is “I hope you’re not planning on doing anything stupid.” Walker who lives with Bipolar Disorder explains:
If you feel trapped and desperate and believe nobody can offer you a solution, wanting to remove yourself from the equation actually feels fairly sensible. Sure, some suicides are impulsive (especially if alcohol is involved) but actually it’s often something people have often thought long and hard about. Many take all the steps they can to minimise the impact on their loved ones, putting financial and practical affairs in order before they do the deed. When you tell me my careful plan is “something stupid”, you’re dismissing its importance – a fast track to alienating me. In fact, it makes me feel like you think I must be stupid. If you’re worried, say so, but don’t dismiss it as stupidity. What’s wrong with saying, “I’ve seen/heard you mention suicide, and I’m concerned about you. Are you safe? Is there anything I can do to help?
When an individual gets to the point where they believe nothing and no one can help—sadly, it’s too late. That’s why it’s important they don’t. Some can be saved in a conversation but everyone suffering with depression, deep sadness, hopelessness, psychosis, and feeling trapped needs a strong consistent support system and treatment to break that emotional yoke.
It’s a blessing to have a steady family and friend base while experiencing a crisis. However, don’t let a lack of family or friend support prevent you from reaching out for help. Suicide prevention specialists are available to help you 24-hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s better you talk to a stranger than no one at all. Help is a two-way street. We shut ourselves from receiving the help we need, thinking it’s no help out there or because we desire attention from a particular source. Share your feelings with a teacher, counselor, pastor or anyone that you trust. You are not alone.