Bystander intervention

bystander intervention icon

The following guidelines have been developed with reference to the bystander intervention information provided by OSAPR and the Department of Defense’s Safe Helpline program.

What does it mean to be an active bystander? 

A bystander is anyone who observes a situation. We all observe thousands of incidents daily, but usually do not acknowledge the situation as needing our response. An active bystander is someone who acknowledges a problematic situation and chooses how to respond. Active bystanders must decide if they will speak up, step in, or offer assistance. 

Why are people hesitant to be active bystanders?

Research has found that people struggle with whether helping out is their responsibility. This concept, called diffusion of responsibility, means that if several people are present, an individual is much less likely to help, believing someone else will. In other situations, bystanders may fail to intervene if the situation feels ambiguous and the bystander is worried about misjudging the situation. Fearing consequences, social stigma, embarrassment, or a threat to safety, it can be legitimately difficult to determine how and when to intervene.

What can I do?  

Have you ever stopped a friend from going home with someone when they were very drunk?  Have you ever gotten a friend to Urgent Care or taken care of them for the night because you knew they were too drunk to be left alone? Have you been willing to call out racism, homophobia, sexism, and/or transphobia in someone's jokes? Have you interrupted when you notice someone is being bullied? These are all examples of being an active bystander. Active bystander intervention encourages people to watch for those behaviors and situations.

There are a variety of ways to intervene. Some of them are direct, and some of them are less obvious:

  • Make up an excuse to get the person out of a potentially dangerous situation—“I’m starving—do you want to grab some food?” or “I need to run to the restroom—will you come with me?”
  • Never leave the person’s side, despite the efforts of someone to get the person alone or away from you.
  • Use a group of friends to remind someone behaving inappropriately that the behavior should be respectful.
  • Take steps to curb someone’s use of alcohol before problems occur.
  • Call the authorities when the situation warrants.

If I choose to intervene, how do I make sure I stay safe?

Usually, intervening in a group is safer than intervening individually. Also, choosing a method of intervention that de-escalates the situation is safer than attempting a confrontation. However, there is no single rule that can account for every situation. Use good judgment and always put safety first.

Check in before you check out

  • Trust your instinct when you notice something is off.
  • Interpret the situation as needing your response. It is your business to check in with your peers.
  • Choose a safe way to intervene that feels natural to you, and don’t hesitate to enlist the support of friends, peers, and professionals.
  • Checking in is a way to show respect for people in your community. Practice kindness and be a decent human. It’s that simple.