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.

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