Amy Winehouse and the bystander effect

The bystander effect [] is a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases where individuals do not offer any means of help in an emergency situation to the victim when other people are present. The probability of help has in the past been thought to be inversely related to the number of bystanders; in other words, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help.”

For years we watched the late Amy Winehouse on her downward spiral into addiction and self-destruction. In her first single off her international smash hit album, Back to Black, Winehouse sang a catchy tune about not wanting to go to rehab. She won a Grammy, and despite the fact that it really appeared she needed rehab, we kept singing along.

Even after the height of her Back to Black success Winehouse made international headlines with photos of her looking strung out, sick, and distressed. But even that didn’t really alarm the majority of people. Sure, we noticed that she looked sick but we only did so to mock her. Sadly, we were all bystanders to the emergency that was Amy’s self-destruction and we didn’t self-reflect on our own ineptitude until she was gone.

What’s most disturbing about that is just how open Winehouse was with her troubles. References to alcohol and drugs were in her lyrics often. She sang her pain. That is part of the reason her music resonated with so many people around the world. Yet her addiction was seen not as a disease, but as part of the schtick. The more she seemed to head towards the proverbial cliff the more we pointed and laughed, “Oh look, there goes Amy being Amy.” Winehouse is not the first artist to sing her pain and then go on to an early death. Much has been said about the “27 club” with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain who all bled their pain straight into their art before they died prematurely. Before them, Judy Garland who lived 20 years longer in her public realm of pain before she overdosed on sleeping pills at the age of 47.

Addiction is a disease. Like cancer. We don’t make fun of people with cancer. Even a celebrity who is diagnosed with cancer gets an outpouring of support from the public. We don’t watch them die from afar and not even reach out a hand to support them. When a person with cancer loses all of their hair or has mastectomy to remove a tumor we don’t point and laugh at what a mess they’ve become. Why was the same not done with Winehouse? For some reason we don’t know better when it comes to addiction. Maybe it’s because we look at addiction as self-inflicted while maintaining the cognitive dissonance to still separate it from smokers who get lung cancer. Maybe it’s because we get some sort of sick pleasure out of some else’s troubles as a way of making our lives seem better in comparison.

Whatever the reason for our inability to act with compassion the case of Amy Winehouse she is not the first nor will she be the last to die with the globe as a bystander to her demise.

Join the Conversation

  • Phaedre

    I don’t understand what it is you think I, a Canadian from a small rural town, was supposed to do? I never mocked her and I mourn her death, but how am I part of the bystander effect? Was I supposed to get on a plane to London, stalk her and try to drag her to rehab?

    • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

      I’m also a bit baffled by this. I’ve been part of a successful intervention for someone I knew, I’ve voiced concerns to others I knew that fell on deaf ears. Other times I was completely unaware of what troubles someone had. Addiction is serious and misunderstood, even by people who mean well. Sometimes it can be hard enough to voice your concerns to a family member or friend who you know well, you may need to be prepared to be met with defensiveness and such. And sometimes, some people just don’t want to stop doing…whatever it is we’re concerned about them doing.

      Now couple that with the fact that I never personally met Amy Winehouse, much less shared a level of trust with her where I could confront such issues, I’m really not sure what I could have done about this.

  • Napoleoninrags

    I agree that addiction is no laughing matter and that it is a pathetic and dehumanizing thing to mock the tragedy of others.

    But I disagree that the death of Amy Winehouse can, in any way, be attributed to bystander effect on the part of the “we” or “us” referenced in your post. “We” didn’t know her and had no possible means of intervening in her life. She was an image on a tv screen or a laptop, at most an unapproachable person on a stage while we were in a crowd.

    Further, the actual responsibility in these situations is often quite a bit more straight-forwardly sinister than being ignored by bystanders. With Amy Winehouse, Lindsay Lohan, Michael Jackson – these people are surrounded by sycophants who make their livelihood off of keeping these folks diseased, keeping them from functioning. Because if they got better the tabloid checks would stop coming, the attention would dry up, and they might, just might, realize that they had no need for said sycophants.

    • toongrrl

      These sycophants you talk about sound like terminal enablers (“I’m helping you by making it easier for you to take pills/get cocaine/maintain your addiction/excuse your behavior.”)
      That said addiction is a terrible thing that can ruin the lives of the one addicted and the lives of those around them. A Uncle of mine was addicted to gambling. Almost destroyed his marriage and I don’t think he’s a hero in the eyes of his oldest kid, my cousin. My uncle is better now, but my cousin is so pessimistic and depressed from what I’m told and I don’t know what to do. I know this isn’t a advice column, but does anybody have any ideas?

  • jillian

    Addiction is a disease and you can’t cure a disease In someone who doesn’t think they have a disease. They’ve gotta wanna more than the people around them. Several years back heroin hit my family hard. Two of the gals straightened up, got help, dropped those friends and live good lives now but still look back in horror and regret for what they put their families through. The other. Well, we’re going to get that phone call one of these days and it’s not because we were just standing back and watching.

    • zerlina

      I made sure in my piece to not only talk about standing back in watching but also openly mocking the addict. I linked to two videos by The Young Turks (they have several more where they mock Winehouse and call her a crackhead and laugh as if that is something to be made light of; it’s not) which I think highlight this problem. I’m not saying we all could’ve staged a personal intervention. I’m saying that at the very least we could have not mocked her openly or co-signed on others that did so (by not speaking against that). We have the power to push back on these media representations by writing letters to the editor and writing petitions to put pressure on these places. We’ve done it before (NYT’s first piece on the gang rape in Texas is just one example where public pressure changed their coverage). The same thing should be done when addiction and addicts are covered (not to mention drug policy). Amy Winehouse was viewed as a joke because of her addiction and we didn’t speak out against that fact. I didn’t either. That’s why I say we. I am including myself in this assessement. It’s a shame. We could also do it more with people in our personal lives who suffer from the disease of addiction. Sitting back and watching a person die shouldn’t be an option and I know that they need to decide for themselves to get help, what I want to emphasize with this piece is that we should not just watch and do nothing.

  • genette

    sorry should have been *we live in a WORLD where…

  • Marlene

    I’m not sure that it’s possible to help someone in her position.

    Sometimes the public derision is intended to scare others away from substance abuse; to act as a negative social pressure.

    On the other hand, when the people who scream loudest about how bad drugs are and how horrible (or laughable) drug addicts are turn out to be total tools (The Young Turks, Nancy Reagan, whoever) it sets up a situation where unapologetic drug use appears glamorous and rebellious and a badge of” authenticity”. Amy Winehouse, Johny Thunders, Jackie Curtis, Chet Baker… I’m sorry that she is dead. I’m sorry that she probably never got close to beating whatever made her feel so bad as to need constant emotional shelter in the form of drugs. I am damn proud and happy for her that she lived the romantic junkie dream all the way and stands firmly among the heroes of the genre, as sad a pursuit as it may have been.

  • Brüno

    The mistake many people do who want to try to help bulemic people, is seeing the bulemy as the problem, when it is a symptom of other problems, much like selfcutting and no, banning beauty peagants and getting advertisers to photoshop their models less thin wont solve the problem.

  • Matthew T. Jameson

    What would you have had us do, specifically?

    Also, it is unclear where we need to draw distinctions here between a “schtick” and someone’s actual problematic behavior. For example, Ke$ha could die tomorrow from an OD, and 20/20 hindsight would tell us that an artist who sings about brushing her teeth “with a bottle of jack,” must have a problem, but I have no idea whether that has anything to do with her actual life or her on-stage persona. Granted, with Winehouse, there appeared to be some major physical effects, but even there it is not clear what the problem was and how to intervene without stomping on her bodily autonomy (yes, she was skinny, but doesn’t a woman have a right to be? There is no easy intervention answer for the self-evident problems she was evincing).

  • Max Vohra

    I have to disagree with you. As you mentioned in your post, this is the woman who sang about rejecting rehab. I think you can’t force people to quit addictions. For effective treatment, first of all the patient must realize that they have a problem and accept help offered. I agree that there are people out there who need to be reached and helped. But Amy Winehouse (if I remember correctly) had help and she chose not to accept that help. There are stars who overcome addiction after they’ve become famous because they genuinely wanted to (EG:- Fergie, Eminem). If Winehouse wanted to she could have overcome her situation; she had money and resources. And I don’t think people thought she was actually going to die. She was a celebrity, it could have been part of the act.

  • davenj

    This is a profound misinterpretation of the bystander effect.

    For this to be a case of that effect, observers need to be capable of intervention in some form or another. Those who observed Winehouse’s pain or addiction were not, in general, bystanders, but rather consumers or voyeurs. As such, they were not in a position to intervene.

    It’s not valid to call anyone who has heard the song “Rehab” a bystander.

    Those suffering from addiction and its underlying causes need the help and support of family, friends, and loved ones in order to deal with their problems. Most Winehouse fans fell into none of those categories.

  • Julie

    I thought this piece was very interesting and did a good job of articulating the ways in which we play a role (to various extents) in keeping each other well. I didn’t read this as Zerlina arguing that we all, personally, should have intervened in the traditional sense (it’s clear she is employing a broad interpretation of the bystander effect), but highlighting the way our actions contribute to a culture that stigmatizes some illnesses (in this case, addiction) and deems others worthy of our sympathy. As global citizens, our (in)actions do impact others. By absolving oneself of such social responsibility (“I don’t know her, how could I have helped?”; “It is her responsibility to help herself”, etc.) we are maintaining the (neo-liberal, individualistic) status quo.

    • zerlina

      Yes, Julie pretty much sums up my point eloquently. Thanks for that!

    • Phaedre

      Julie and Zerlina: Again, what is it I was supposed to do? I don’t mock addictions, I don’t mock Amy Winehouse, I mourn her death. I still have no clue what it is, exactly, Zerlina wants us to do. It’s all fine and good to say we’re neo-liberals because we said we couldn’t intervene but… umm… *we couldn’t intervene*. It’s pretty much a fact, not a belief.

      If, Zerlina, you wanted to berate people who make fun of addicts, ok cool, yeah I agree, it’s inappropriate, unhelpful, and dangerous. But by pulling up a well known psychological idea and stretching it to the point of being unrecognizable, I’m left just confused as to your message.

      • Matthew T. Jameson

        Well-said, Phaedre.

  • Juliette

    I agree with many of the above commenters that we couldn’t just get on a plane and drag Amy Winehouse to rehab. BUT we are all capable of ignoring the tabloids that were accelerating her train-wreck by publishing photos of her illness. We are capable of resisting the urge to click on any and all links to “news” related to her death, so that newspapers and blogs stop thinking stories of addictions like Amy Winehouse’s can get them more money. There is no miracle cure, but I’m fairly sure that it would have been a tiny bit easier for Winehouse, and many other celebrity addicts to go to rehab if they weren’t photographed every step of the way. I’m not saying that tabloid caused her illness, but rather that they didn’t make the cure any easier.

    I don’t think any of us should beat ourselves up over her death – but our own addiction to watching the descent into hell of celebrities does bear a bit of responsibility. In this case, looking away was probably the right thing to do, so that her family might have been able to step in and help her.

  • honeybee

    In all fairness fans and others have been sending her letters and messages and everything else for years to try and help her. She got alot more support and offers of help then 99.9% of people who deal with addictions. As others have said however ultimately you can’t help anyone unless they want help. In fact trying to do so can often make the person more determined then ever to continue their behaviours.

    Really surprised by this stream of articles (other news sources have similar) as what I observed over the past years was clear condemnation of her lifestyle and many offers of help. Beyond that there isn’t much anyone who isn’t VERY close to her personally can do. And it’s not clear if there was any such person or if they could have made any difference either.