Today is World Mental Health Day, and October is National Bullying Prevention Month. Since the two often go hand-in-hand, it’s important to talk about them at the same time. But something we don’t talk about enough when we discuss mental health issues and bullying is the bystander effect. The bystander effect is a psychological event that means individuals are less likely to help a person who is typically in danger when there are large groups of people around. For example, if someone has a heart attack in the middle of a crowded street and no one knows the person, no single person feels directly responsible to step up because there are so many people around to help. There’s another psychological term called “pluralistic ignorance” where people, or bystanders, will internally dismiss something because of what everyone else around them is doing, which in many cases is nothing. So how can we stop ourselves from falling victim to the bystander effect, and what can we do to help?
Sometimes things happen so fast around us that we don’t fully understand them until they’re over. Being aware of your surroundings isn’t only important for your safety (like looking both ways before you cross the street), but it helps you look out for other people as well. Pay attention! Take note when your friend makes a worrisome joke that might hint toward something wrong. Also take note when someone is being bullied. So many things happen around us every day, you never know how much being observant can help you and those around you.
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Don’t be afraid to speak up
When someone is being treated unjustly, it can be uncomfortable for everyone, and it can be scary to do something about it. Sometimes all that person needs is for someone to stick up for them and stop validating the bully for mistreating them—because that’s exactly what inaction does. Even if you don’t feel comfortable putting yourself in the middle of that situation, find a time to talk to that person one-on-one. Remember: the worst thing you can do is nothing.
We’ve all been empathetic before, like when we cringe because something embarrassing happened to our favorite character on a TV show or when we cry during those sad animal rescue commercials. The truth is, we feel empathetic all the time whether we realize it or not, but just because we feel it all the time doesn’t mean it's something we can’t get better at. Do things that can make someone’s day better, like helping your friends and those around you when they need it. Listen to what those around you have to say, and try your best to withhold judgment. Talking about some things can be scary, so try to be understanding of their situation. Everyone’s emotions are valid. We can reduce our vulnerability to the bystander effect by putting ourselves in other people’s shoes and thinking about how they might want us to help.
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Think about how you can help
You don’t always have to impulsively insert yourself into a bad situation. You can help people in other ways, like inviting them to eat lunch with you and your friends. Sometimes the best thing is to talk to a trusted adult to express your concerns and see what their advice is. If the situation is more serious and you think this person might have suicidal thoughts, you can call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). Calls to the organization are routed to a center in your area to give you the best resources possible. For more information on how to act, visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline website. Remember, every situation is different, and the best thing to do isn’t always obvious or easy, but it’s what needs to be done.
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You are likely not the only person who wants to act but is scared to. Chances are that everyone around you wants to act, but they just don’t know how to. Don’t let fear discourage you from helping someone. Let your compassion and empathy overpower that. All it takes is one person saying or doing something to cause a chain reaction that could ultimately make a person’s life better. As cliché as it sounds, you can always be the one to make a change. You can be the one who gets someone the help they need to survive. You can be the one to create a safe space for someone who has never been given one. Don’t let yourself become yet another victim of the bystander effect.
If you want to learn the basics of mental health to be a more informed ally to those in need, check out our article A General Guide to Mental Health Awareness for Students.