How To Be An Active Bystander During Lockdown

Calls to Refuge, the UK’s largest domestic violence helpline, have increased by 700% as many victims of abuse have been forced into lockdown with their perpetrators, where no-one can witness what is happening.

Before this pandemic took hold, the University of Worcester ran a highly successful Bystander Intervention programme, where students and staff learned how to recognise abusive behaviour and how to, safely, challenge it.

Dr Gill Harrop, Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology at the University, who runs the programme, said it’s important that we remain active bystanders, even during this period and here offers some advice on how to do this.

A bystander is someone who sees a situation but isn’t actually involved in it,” she said. “They’re simply a witness, someone who happens to be there. The very nature of being a bystander means that you don’t have to get involved at all. You can choose to walk away from a problematic situation with no repercussions for you. Or you could take the second option – decide that you’re going to get involved and be an active bystander.

“Active bystanders are a particularly valuable resource in the fight against violence and abuse. By noticing what’s happening around them and speaking out when they see problematic behavior, active bystanders can send a clear message that violence and abuse will not be tolerated or overlooked.”

Dr Harrop said that there is a common misconception that being an active bystander means running headfirst into problematic situations and taking direct action.

“This can put lots of people off, especially if they don’t feel comfortable with confrontation,” she said. “Bystander training, such as our Bystander Intervention programme at the University of Worcester, seeks to dispel that myth. Yes, we want you to take action when you encounter problematic behavior, but that action can take lots of different forms, depending on the situation or what you feel comfortable doing. It might mean stepping outside and calling the police, creating a distraction, texting someone to see if they’re okay, or not laughing when someone tells a misogynistic joke. It can also mean noticing when a friend has yet another bruise on their arm, going to the police with them to make a report, or staying with them while they call a domestic violence helpline.  Being an active bystander can be all of these things and much more. It’s about noticing when there’s potentially a problem and choosing to do something.”

With the reported increase in calls to domestic abuse helplines and support centres, Dr Harrop says active bystanders continue to play a vital role in our society, now more so than ever.

“This is where active bystanders are more important than ever in reaching out to those experiencing violence or abuse and letting them know that they’re not alone, particularly as 75% of groups who support victims of violence have had to reduce their service delivery to victims in response to Covid-19,” said Dr Harrop. “So if you can, look out for those around you and commit to being an active bystander. Doing something to intervene, however small, can still make an enormous difference to someone else’s life.”


Here are some ways that you can be an active bystander during lockdown:

  • If you believe that someone is in immediate danger call 999 and ask for the police.
  • You may not be able to see friends, colleagues or family members but you can still reach out to them by text, WhatsApp or facetime. Ask how they’re doing and let them know that you’re there to chat if they want. If you’re particularly worried about someone, reach out. You could even let them know that you feel concerned. 
  • If you do want to reach out to someone that you’re concerned about, make sure they can communicate with you safely. Don’t discuss any concerns about violence or abuse unless you’re sure they are alone. Be aware that their messages may be monitored. If you can’t communicate with them on their own, ask when they or their partner will be shopping or exercising and use that opportunity to speak to them alone. You could also arrange a code word or phrase for them to use with you in the future to indicate that they need help. 
  • If someone tells you that they’re experiencing abuse, let them know that you believe them. Although you may have strong feelings about what you think they should do, avoid pressuring them to take action if they aren’t ready – they need to make their own decision in their own time. Just let them know you’re there for them. 
  • If someone tells you that they are planning to leave a violent relationship, help them to access advice and support to leave safely. The most dangerous time for someone in a violent relationship is the point of leaving and there are many support services available to help them make a plan to leave safely, such as the National Domestic Abuse Helpline (0808 2000 247). 
  • Use your social media to share important information, such as the number of the National Domestic Abuse Helpline (0808 2000 247 - free and available 24 hours a day) or a reminder of the police’s Silent Solution system, where individuals can summon the police without speaking by calling 999 then pressing 55. 
  • Finally, and importantly, you should only intervene if it’s safe to do so. If it’s not safe, call 999.