Amy Winehouse and the bystander effect part deux

So the verdict is in. Singer Amy Winehouse died from alcohol poisoning. The Grammy award winner had fallen off the wagon again after a short period of abstaining from alcohol and her relapse killed her according to the coroner’s report. Her blood alcohol level was tested as more than five times the legal limit.

Most people assumed that Winehouse died from some illicit or illegal substance. Crack or heroin are drugs she has been rumored to have used in the past. This belief allowed people to distance themselves from her issues. Amy is on drugs and I don’t do drugs hence I cannot relate to her problems.

I believe the news that Winehouse died from the legal, but equally deadly addiction of alcohol poisoning is a wake up call for all of us. Amy is not unlike many of us. Alcohol poisoning isn’t all that uncommon and her death should be a warning that we need to both be self aware but also assist any friends or family members who may have issues with alcohol before it’s too late.

Back in July, I wrote that Winehouse’s death is part of the phenomena known as 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.”

Many of you disagreed with my premise and that’s fine. But I think the news that she died of something you can buy legally at the local liquor store and not from some unnamed drug dealer makes her death all the more relatable. Alcohol poisoning is common. Especially among young people. The social acceptance associated with binge drinking extends across cultures. Winehouse is no longer in another category of addict. She is us.

Her issues were not dealt with properly but it’s not because she refused to get help. Many reports say she was on medication for alcohol withdrawal in order to assist her when she quit drinking. Withdrawal from alcohol is surprisingly more dangerous and difficult than withdrawal from heroin. Once she had stopped drinking and then as many addicts do, fell off the wagon and relapsed, her body couldn’t handle it. Addiction is like a terminal illness with no cure. It’s only treatable.

Unfortunately for Amy she couldn’t be helped but I’m sure as you are reading this you can think of someone in your life who can still be helped so go make a phone call.

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14 Comments

  1. Posted October 27, 2011 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    As a child of an alcoholic, I remain very uncomfortable with your “bystander affect” connection. I think that in that argument, is the implication that bystanders (or spouses, or children) can “control” the addiction and that our lack of intervention makes us in some way responsible for the alcoholic’s actions.

    This is the opposite of what I have come to understand in order to heal. I do not feel any responsibility to “make a phone call” to any alcoholics in my life, because if I did, I would open myself back up to being manipulated by master manipulators. “Why didn’t you stop me?”, “I just need your help to get sober.” and all the other lies.

    I think it’s deeply irresponsible to talk about people’s response to addiction in a way that doesn’t address people who are healing from the damage that alcoholics and addicts have caused in their lives, and to, (though I”m sure this wasn’t your intention), berate us for creating healthy boundaries.

    • Posted October 27, 2011 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      Thank you selkie.

      Who am I supposed to call? The addict who is in denial about the problem? A doctor? What is the doctor going to do?

      Winehouse was seeing a doctor regularly. She had been to rehab multiple times. She had been clean for weeks before she died. It’s not like her family was doing nothing. If anything the moral of this sad tale is how impossible it is to force treatment onto an addict.

    • Posted October 27, 2011 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      I think that by -not- opening up yourself to be manipulated IS taking action, and you are doing the right thing.

      I think where this post is coming from is that for many people with alcoholics in their lives, they try to pretend that everything is normal. Normally, if a friend asks you for a loan, or to spot them for a drink, or for a place to crash during hard times, for most of us the appropriate thing to do is to give what you can. But if a friend who is an alcoholic asks for any of these things (and they will), the best action is often to refuse, because you are allowing the dangerous behaviour to continue, but refusing is difficult for most of us for a variety of reasons.

      I don’t know if “bystander effect” is the right term in this case, but there may be something to the principle idea that people try to convince themselves that things aren’t that bad, and that they don’t need to change their behaviour. There’s something of a social inertia involved, where it sometimes takes a lot before we realise that what we’re doing isn’t working.

      I think that by choosing not to be manipulated, by not supporting someone’s addiction, by creating and maintaining your healthy boundaries, you have already overcome the “bystander effect” here.

    • Posted October 27, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

      As someone who has dealt with both addiction personally and known others who have dealt with such issues, I feel compelled to say that alot of what you hear from addicts are not lies. They often genuinely do want to change, genuinely do feel others could have helped them more, etc. it’s just that they literally couldn’t stop themselves. It wasn’t a lie – they meant what they said or at least wanted to mean it – they just couldn’t stop themselves from breaking it.

      I do however also have a problem with the bystander theory. First off, you can’t help someone unless they want to be helped. Alot of addicts don’t want to be helped. They want to continue. And secondly, while there are alot of good things you can and should do to help someone you love in these situations, ultimately no one can be responsible for anyone else. We are all individuals and there is nothing anyone can do to control others or force them to live a certain way. At the end of the day the responsibility for getting clean lies with the addict themself. Others may be able to HELP them – but they can’t be responsible for “curing them”.

  2. Posted October 27, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps someone at Feministing might have gone back and read the many and vociferous comments denouncing the supposed responsibility of “bystanders” for Winehouse’s death the last time the OP wrote about this.

    “Unfortunately for Amy she couldn’t be helped but I’m sure as you are reading this you can think of someone in your life who can still be helped so go make a phone call.”

    Ok – first, the premise of the last post was that Amy could be helped and that we, the public, just hadn’t done enough to help. Hence the culpability of bystanders.

    Then, we move to the preposterous idea that we can save loved ones with addiction by calling them up, checking in, showing them that they are loved.

    Addiction and dependency don’t work that way and I think it is totally irresponsible to post something like this that tries to assign guilt or responsibility to those who are actually hurt themselves by addicts.

    Whether or not they subscribe to a disease/pathology model of addiction, I know of no reputable health professional who believes that addiction can be cured or managed by anyone other than the addict.

  3. Posted October 27, 2011 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    How I wish that making a phone call would help those in my life who are struggling or have struggled with addiction. As selkie said, it is just not that simple, and Winehouse’s death is a good example: people were trying to help her.

    You make a good point that “Alcohol poisoning is common. Especially among young people. The social acceptance associated with binge drinking extends across cultures”; we do need to work on talking about the reality and presence of alcohol addiction, especially with young people. It is difficult to find a balance between the destructiveness and the benefits of alcohol (that a drug can be so enmeshed in our culture in such good and such bad ways is what makes the issue so difficult).

    Maybe by making a phone call you mean starting a conversation. But for those of us who have wrestled with others’ addictions, there have been so many phone calls, so many conversations, so many awkward and ugly and heart-squeezing moments. There will be more deaths like Amy’s. There will be more grief. We all wish calling out the behavior would be enough, but it isn’t.

  4. Posted October 27, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    I have known more than one alcoholic in my life. From my experience, they usually have to hit bottom before they will ever change for the better. And sometimes they have to hit bottom more than once.

    A friend’s father only stopped drinking after close to forty years of abusing his body after he fell and fractured his skull. The fall also caused brain damage and the doctor told him that his next fall would be his last. So it took the fear of death to make him stay away from the bottle. The stories of addiction, regardless of the person or the context are harrowing.

    The best purpose I’ve ever served is being the voice of reason, not being an enabler.

  5. Posted October 27, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    “The social acceptance associated with binge drinking extends across cultures.”

    No, it doesn’t. Alcohol consumption and the way it’s tolerated varies dramatically across cultures.

    Aside from the other problems (sometimes with addicts you have to be bystander, or they’ll take over your life), this is just plainly not true.

  6. Posted October 27, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    “Winehouse is no longer in another category of addict. She is us.”

    This seems awfully assumptive that no one reading Feministing has ever experienced substance abuse of things besides alcohol, or had a close loved who who did.

    But again, before we go blaming everybody, what if you DID make that phone call? Had that heart-to-heart conversation in private? Drove them to AA or rehab or whatever yourself? Staged that intervention? Asked to see the chip after they claimed to be at AA all afternoon, only to be met with some flimsy excuse about how they lost it?

    At what point in this “bystander effect” argument does it get to stop being the fault of the child/spouse/best friend/parent of the addict?

  7. Posted October 27, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Yet another instance of alchohol poisoning makes me thank my lucky stars that the government is keeping me safe from the evils of non-addictive and virtually-impossible-to-OD-on marijuana (or the quite literally impossible to OD on psylocybin mushroom)!

  8. Posted October 27, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    OK, so if Winehouse was apparently receiving treatment for her addiction, it seems counterintuitive to frame her death as, “No one reached out to her to get treatment, so she died.” This looks like an example of someone who sought treatment (not clear if it was a decision she made herself, or if she was influenced by other people, the ones you are calling “bystanders,” and thus assuming they did nothing to help her).

    In the OP, you made a statement that it is “fine,” that others disagree with your assertion that Winehouse’s death resulted from the bystander effect (or, is an example of the bystander effect). You still have not justified that assertion, since there is A. no clear evidence that her death resulted from inaction on the part of purported bystanders (an assertion made even weaker by the evidence that she was involved in some kind of alcohol treatment) and B. It is not clear that it would have been effective for fans, or other “bystanders,” to intervene. One major difference between this example and, say, the Kitty Genovese case, was that there was a clear and present danger that could have been countered by a clear and present intervention (calling the police or an ambulance, physically intervening against the attacker).

    It is awfully facile to argue that concerned people can, “go make a phone call.” However, it is not entirely clear that an intervention of this form is likely to work. One problem we (I’m a clinical psychology student who has done some work with people with addictions) often encounter in treatment is that the ways we may want to communicate with people experiencing addictions have the potential to make the problem worse. For example, telling a person about the harmful effects of alcohol, or expressing anger with them for abusing alcohol may actually make the person dig in his or heels and argue against intervention. For more information on this phenomenon, read the Wikipedia article on Motivational Interviewing. An effective intervention often takes a great deal of tact, and assistance from someone with more expertise than a “bystander” may have access to.

  9. Posted October 27, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    To suggest to someone that their addicted relative or loved one would get better if they just called them more is really fucking offensive.

    You are ignoring the addicted person’s agency and responsibility in their recovery. If they are unwilling to seek treatment, recovery is not possible. Sure, they might put in a token effort, but if they don’t want to put down that bottle or that needle, no amount of begging, crying, or rational argument will convince them.

    Some of us have tried this and received nothing but lies, manipulation and abuse in return. Are we just supposed to suck it up and try harder?

  10. Posted October 28, 2011 at 3:06 am | Permalink

    I think you’re confusing enabling with the bystander effect. Winehouse probably had enablers at some point — but judging from how many times she went to rehab, she probably didn’t have many when she died.

    Baby Yue Yue is an example of the bystander effect. Some people in Foshan realized there was an injured kid in the road, but they didn’t do anything for complex cultural, social, and legal reasons. The bystander effect is how Western social psychologists explain their refusal to call an ambulance. (I don’t think it accurately explains Mainland Chinese people’s refusal to interfere with strangers’ problems, but that’s a different discussion for a different post.)

    Personally, I think she’s an example of how ineffective addiction treatment, and talk therapy generally, is. But that’s the psychology’s fault, not the patients’. And it’s a shame because it prevents patients from getting adequate care when they do seek help, while also perpetuating the psych patient and addiction stigmas.

  11. Posted October 28, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Thanks to all who have commented. I too feel that this really trivializes addiction and the relationship that addicts have with those closest to them. To suggest that events like this result from the “bystander effect” is just insulting to those who have, actually, personally confronted such situations.

    If the author feels that Amy Winehouse’s death has made her suddenly fully realize the dangers of alcoholism or alcohol poisoning, that’s great. Awareness of those problems is very important. But you are generalizing your own experience, writing me (and others of your readers) into a narrative that is not mine. When you call this a “wake up call for all of us”, I think what you really mean is that this is a wake up call for you.

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