'We all want to believe we would be the hero': Why one woman froze in a crisis

The bystander effect prevented Jeva Lange from helping someone who she thought was contemplating suicide.

The bystander effect prevented Jeva Lange from helping someone who she thought was contemplating suicide

Jeva Lange is a writer based in New York City. (Submitted by Jeva Lange)
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Jeva Lange was riding the New York City subway when she noticed that a young man appeared to be on the verge of attempting suicide. But instead of helping him, she stood there — completely frozen.

Lange was headed home from a movie that night when the fellow subway rider walked past her, and stepped through the doorway that led into the next subway car. But instead of crossing over, he paused on the platform in between.

According to Lange, he turned toward the side of the train, and appeared to be testing the barrier along the platform with his foot, as if he was preparing to jump off.

"I started looking at other people in the car," she told Out in the Open host Piya Chattopadhyay. "It was clear everybody on the train was freaked out."

In that moment, she thought about her options. Should she go out there and talk to him? Should she call the police? Should she call a suicide prevention hotline?

But all she could do was exchange nervous glances with her fellow passengers.

"I froze," she admits.

When the man finally passed into the next subway car, she felt a collective sigh of relief on the train. But the incident rattled her.

"We all want to believe that we would be the hero who runs back into the building that's on fire and saves the kids. And it was really revealing to me, about myself, to not have that reaction," Lange recalls.

The 'bystander effect'

Lange was experiencing the "bystander effect". It's a psychological phenomenon that occurs when a person fails to offer help to someone in distress when there are other people present. Instead of stepping up, the hope is that someone else will.

In early 2015, Quebec coroner Jacques Ramsay released a report on the death of Radil Hebrich, 59, who was hit and killed by a Metro car a year earlier in Montreal's east end.

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Ramsay concluded that Hebrich had a chance of surviving his injuries, if only a passerby had stopped to help him as he lay bleeding on the platform.

"It's sort of a case where people expect their neighbours will do something," Ramsay told CBC News at the time.

In a 2015 interview about the incident on The Sunday Edition, Concordia University psychology professor Theresa Bianco said the bystander effect is exacerbated when the correct course of action isn't immediately clear.

'I don't want to act, but I have to'

Lange resolved that, if she found herself facing a similar crisis again, she'd start by vocalizing what she was feeling. She'd talk to the other bystanders and decide how to act, together.

"It's about having the tools to know: I'm scared right now, I don't want to act, but I have to, and this is how I'm going to get to that point."

To this day, Lange still thinks about that young man on the subway, and reflects on what she didn't do in that moment.

"We tend not to have a script for how to deal with these types of situations," she said. "So when there's ambiguity like that, we tend to look to others for guidance as to what is the appropriate behaviour."

This story appears on the Out in the Open episode "Crisis Reactors".