accessibility & help

Bystander or lifesaver?

In Germany, three people have been fined for failing to help someone who was clearly in need of emergency assistance. People not stepping in to help is worryingly common, with people avoiding getting involved for all kinds of reasons. This activity aims to break down these barriers to helping, and inspire positive action and compassion.

Suggested age range: 11–19
Curriculum links: Citizenship


Ask students to close their eyes and image this scene: an 82-year-old man goes to the bank to withdraw some cash. He enters an unstaffed booth with a number of ATM machines.

But as he approaches a machine, he collapses. He tries to get up, but twice more collapses to the ground. He then lies on the floor, not moving.

Ask students to open their eyes. You can display image 1 if you feel this is appropriate for your class, and considering any learners’ personal circumstances where this might not be appropriate.

A man lies collapsed in a bank© Info

Explain that a person comes into the bank to use a cash machine.

  • What are their options?
  • What do the young people think they did?

Discuss the options.

  • Who has clear idea of what they would do?
  • Who is less certain?

Explain what actually happened when this scene occurred last year in the city of Essen, Germany (you may choose to show image 2, if appropriate for your class):

 A bystander walks over a man collapsed in a bank


  • The first person into the booth stepped over the person, got some cash out and left.
  • So did the second person. And the third and fourth.
  • The fifth person called an ambulance.

Discuss these responses. Do they match what the young people might have expected?

This is an example of the bystander effect, which describes what happens when people don’t help out in an emergency. In fact, the more people present, the less likely someone will step forward and help. People often think someone else will step in and so they decide to not get involved.

No one knows precisely what influenced those who didn’t help. Invite the class to think about the possible reasons given for not helping. Note these on the board. Here are some of the types of reasons people sometimes give (with some possible solutions in brackets, for the next part of the discussion):

  • I don’t know what to do. (Calling 999 means that the call handler will advise you of what you need to do. You can also the person what they need – emotional support is important.)
  • He could be dangerous. (You should always put your safety first. You can still call 999; that is still helping them.)
  • There will be someone else who can help better than I can. (What if there isn’t? Imagine if it was a member of your own family – would you want someone to help them?)
  • They might be drunk. (They might be but they still need someone to help them.)
  • I’m in a hurry. (Even if you just stop to see how someone is or call 999 it can make all the difference.)
  • It’s nothing to do with me. (In a similar situation, wouldn’t you want someone to try and help you?)
  • He might be a homeless man sleeping. (If you are worried about someone, it is always best to check they are okay.)

Ask the group to pick two of the reasons that most resonate with them. Which are the ones that might prevent them the most from acting? Why?

Discuss how the young people might overcome these barriers to safely helping (see the hints above). If they don’t know first aid, what could they still do? (Call 999; ask the person if they are okay.) If they feel frightened but are still worried about the person, what could they do? (Ask another bystander to help them; call 999.) Cross out each barrier and write the solution next to it as you discuss it.

The person who rang the ambulance later said, “I didn’t care if it was a homeless man or someone else … I call an ambulance when someone is lying on the ground and needs help.”

As a group, consider why not everyone thinks like this. What kind of changes are needed to overcome this – in willingness to help, skills or confidence, perhaps.

Invite students to suggest three things they will take away from this session: one thing that has surprised them, one thing they want to tell others, and one thing they will now do differently. Suggested ideas:

  • We assume people will help, but sometimes they don’t.
  • Doing something is better than doing nothing.
  • If I am worried about someone but unsure of what to do, I will get help.

Note: this incident received news coverage because three of the people who stepped over the unresponsive man were recently prosecuted and fined. In Germany, a law makes it an offence to fail to provide assistance. There is currently no such law in the UK. The man who collapsed died a few days later in hospital.

Helpful: Students may ask about what first aid they could do in such an emergency. You can find clear first aid videos and information here. First aid can be simple and fun to learn and quick to teach.


This resource was written by P. J. White of Alt62 and published in October 2017.


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