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Candid Coverage – An Ethical Bystander Experiment

If you saw a stranger struggling on the street, would you step in? The University of Auckland’s Health and Counselling Services asked us to help them with a little experiment.

University isn’t always the most relaxing environment, especially around exam time. It’s not uncommon for some students to find the workload a little overwhelming. The University’s Health and Counselling Services exists to offer support to students who may otherwise be struggling to cope with the stress. Their goal is to raise wellbeing awareness among students and staff alike, and train people to recognise the signs of someone having a hard time.

To demonstrate just how easy it is to overlook a struggling individual, Health and Counselling Services wanted to showcase a common socio-psychological phenomenon:  the ‘bystander effect’. The bystander effect is simple –  the more people that are present at the scene of an incident, the less likely it is that any one of them will intervene. We’ve all been guilty of this at least once. It’s the ‘someone else will handle it’ mindset that compels us to walk right past a public problem without sparing a second thought. Taking inspiration from similar campaigns, the University wanted to stage several candid-camera scenarios to document the bystander effect on campus. The resulting videos would be used to raise awareness, and inspire increased vigilance and empathy between students. We saw it both as an opportunity to make a meaningful impact, as we all as a fun technical challenge. While we had never produced a candid-camera video prior to this project, we were keen to put our skills to the test.

We worked closely with the University’s Health and Counselling Services to develop two distinct scenarios. Scenario One would focus on a lone student in the midst of an anxiety attack, and Scenario Two would focus on a couple having a heated argument. Both scenarios were designed to be alarming, but subtle. It was important that neither scenario was so over-the-top as to inspire violence or other extreme responses from passersby. The scenario had to be believable, and just alarming enough to possibly merit intervention by an attentive bystander. Because performance was so essential to the validity of the experiment, we were careful to cast competent actors in each role. These actors were responsible for improvising the content of their scene across several takes while maintaining the illusion of authenticity. Director Roberto Nascimento was brought on board to assist the actors, and played a key role in ensuring each scenario was believably performed.

Coverage was the next big obstacle. Each scenario would unfold in a heavily trafficked area on campus. We were tasked with covering a real-time scene from multiple angles all while remaining hidden from the public. Making use of telephoto lenses, wireless lavalier microphones, and a handful of strategic vantage points, we managed to position ourselves in such a way to avoid detection. We ran each scenario several times, shooting in the 10-minute window between classes when students were likely to be transiting through the locations. After three or four takes, we were confident we’d captured enough content to tell the story.

Even with all of our planning in place, there was still one thing left entirely up to chance: bystander reactions. Between both scenarios, over hours of shooting, only one student made any attempt at consoling or otherwise supporting the stressed-out students (good on that guy!) Otherwise, the lack of intervention was a disappointing yet eye-opening result, clearly indicating that there is huge room for improvement across students and staff. The finished videos were rolled out on the University’s website as part of a broader campaign to raise awareness and inspire staff and students to reach out to those who may be struggling. The idea is those that have watched the video walk away thinking about what their own reaction in each scenario would have been.

So – what would you do? How do you know if someone “hasn’t got this?”

If you’d like to know more about how you can help yourself or others struggling with their mental health, The Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand provides some fantastic resources online. Alternatively, contact your local Samaritan for advice on any issues that may be causing you concern. Tangohia te tiaki everyone!


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