It’s now thought that around 70% of UK TV audiences regularly watch reality TV shows.
As statistics go, it’s at the more depressing end of the spectrum, especially when you consider that the genre itself is the ultimate misnomer: there really is nothing real about reality TV.
There are those shows – like Gogglebox, Location Location Location and Grand Designs, for example – that have their feet firmly planted in the world of entertainment. These are shows where the participants may be front and centre on our screens (and they can – and do – play to the camera), but they are not the sole focus of the programme itself.
But those that are centred purely on the human condition and have been constructed solely to test the emotional and physical resilience of those taking part have an insidious and dangerous side to them.
Whether it’s long-running TV staples like Big Brother, Married At First Sight or Love Island, or new sleeper hits like The Traitors, everything about them is designed to wring an emotional response from the contestants, and push them to breaking point.
You may well have clocked the fact that Love Island is back for its 9th series – which is a feat in itself when one considers the controversy and criticism that has rightly dogged it throughout its existence.
Four deaths have been linked to the show since its full-time return to our screens in 2015 (following a short-lived initial two-season run in 2006 and 2007) prompting serious concerns about the mental health risks associated with the show, and the level of professional support offered to the contestants.
Original host, Caroline Flack and contestants Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis all took their own lives within 20 months of one another. Gradon’s boyfriend did the same three weeks after her death.
Before her death, Gradon had opened up about how she had become the victim of online trolls as a result of appearing on the programme, prompting senior addiction and mental health lecturer Ian Hamilton, from the University of York, to describe the programme as one that “thrives on manufacturing conflict” that the contestants are then left to manage.
Caroline Flack’s death in February 2020 was so shocking that it prompted immediate calls from some quarters to cancel the show – many critics citing the decision to take the Jeremy Kyle Show off air following the death of a participant who had been vilified after appearing on it.
It’s important to bear in mind that suicide is not a black and white issue. There often no single cause, but usually an accumulation of factors that have the combined effect of a catastrophic tipping of the scales.
The point here is not to berate reality TV for the part it may play in contributing to that emotional burden, but rather to draw attention to the appalling lack of support that exists for those who desperately seek the adoration and approval they believe fame will bring, but who are totally unprepared for the reality of that public exposure.
Gone are the days when the worst you might have endured was a day or two of front pages until the next scandal or gossip took the spotlight. Today we live in a relentless churn of social and digital media in which users themselves prolong and sustain the noise.
And, of course, when we talk about social media users, we’re talking about everyone – so not only does the machine generate more coverage, but it’s consumed by a vastly bigger – almost infinite – audience.
This is why TV channels and their production companies need to provide more emotional protection.
In a remarkable example of shutting the stable door long after the horse had bolted, Love Island survived when the show runners agreed to provide training on handling negativity, financial management, and social media.
Love Island, thought, is not the only one. Here are 10 further examples of catastrophic mental health crises among those associated with reality TV shows:
The Bachelor (2017): In 2017, former contestant Lex McAllister took his own life. McAllister had a history of mental health issues, including bipolar disorder.
Survivor (2013): In 2013, Survivor contestant Caleb Bankston died in a railway accident. Bankston’s fiancé, fellow Survivor contestant Colton Cumbie, later revealed that Bankston had struggled with depression and anxiety.
The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (2011): Taylor Armstrong’s husband, Russell Armstrong, took their own life, Armstrong had appeared on the show and was reportedly struggling with financial and personal issues.
Jersey Shore (2012): Mike Sorrentino opened up about his struggle with addiction and mental health issues, including anxiety and depression.
America’s Got Talent (2018): Finalist Michael Ketterer was arrested for domestic violence, later revealing he struggled with diagnosed depression and had attempted suicide in the past.
The Apprentice (2015): Former contestant Stuart Baggs died suddenly at the age of 27. Baggs had previously spoken about his struggles with anxiety and depression.
The Biggest Loser (2016): Winner Ali Vincent revealed she had struggled with depression and gained back all the weight she had lost on the show. She cited the intense pressure and scrutiny from the public as contributing factors to her mental health struggles.
Dance Moms (2017): Maddie Ziegler revealed she had struggled with anxiety and panic attacks while filming the show. Ziegler, who started on the show at just 8 years old, said the pressure to perform and constantly be in the public eye had been completely overwhelming.
Keeping Up with the Kardashians (2019): Khloe Kardashian opened up about her struggles with anxiety and depression, which were compounded by her husband’s infidelity and the constant attention from the media. She described feeling like she was “living in a nightmare” and wisely sought therapy to cope.
The question here is not just about the toxicity of the formats of some of these shows (although in my view this needs addressing) but also about the duty of care that’s applied to the selection process.
What, if any, mental health screening is in place to identify and then counsel those who may be at an elevated level of risk?
No one is suggesting that appearing on these shows is solely responsible for the litany of tragic misfortune that has punctuated a variety of different shows and formats – but it would certainly be fair to question whether those contestants’ participation weaponised an existing mental health issue.
We all have mental health. Any one of us can suffer from anxiety and depression given the wrong circumstances because we’re all humans with nervous systems; but some of us are more vulnerable than others.
There’s no doubt that given time and support resilience can be built to be being famous. The Kardashians are a good example of this – despite all their problems and struggles, they cope with the intense scrutiny because they have a familial support network of equally-famous parents and siblings who all understand and totally get the fame thing.
So what is it about reality TV that exposes vulnerability?
It’s important to bear in mind that being on a reality TV show can be an extraordinarily stressful experience, and the participants may not always receive the support they need to cope with the pressure and scrutiny that comes with being in the public eye.
We also need to remember that it’s not just the experience of filming that can be destructive: what happens in the edit suite once filming is complete can add a whole new layer of misery through carefully concocted sequences that may not truly reflect the ‘reality’ of what was going on at the time but instead add weight to an often exaggerated storyline.
And while the final product may provide entertainment value, it can also have negative impacts on the mental health of both the participants and the viewers.
For the participants, the constant scrutiny and pressure to perform on camera can lead to high levels of emotional stress. They are likely to feel that they have to act in certain ways or create drama to keep the audience engaged, which can be mentally exhausting.
Additionally, being in a high-pressure environment with other competitive and often confrontational individuals can also contribute to feelings of isolation, loneliness, and self-doubt.
In editing, producers may choose to highlight certain moments or interactions to create a particular storyline, even if it’s not an accurate portrayal of what actually happened. This can lead to feelings of frustration and powerlessness among participants, as they have no control over their own very public narrative.
When the shows are finally aired, storylines can serve to ignite feelings of intolerance or even hatred toward contestants who have been portrayed in a certain light.
For viewers, reality TV can also have negative impacts on mental health. The constant exposure to drama, conflict, and negative behaviour can desensitise individuals to these traits, leading to a normalisation of toxic behaviour.
Worse, this can contribute to a lack of empathy and understanding in real-life situations, as viewers may be led to believe these types of behaviours are not only acceptable or even expected but should be replicated in everyday life.
Then there’s the pursuit of perfection (which, regular readers will know by now, simply doesn’t exist).
The constant comparison of oneself to show participants leads to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. Viewers are prone to believing they don’t measure up to the unrealistic standards of beauty, success, and happiness portrayed on these shows.
This in turn leads to negative thoughts, beliefs and emotions – all of which can become easily entrenched, working to define an undeserved and unhelpful view of self.
Shame is one of the most devastating emotions imaginable. Even paralysing fear can be pushed through, but shame is like being pinned to the floor – and in the case of reality TV stars it’s a very public witch hunt, which is possibly the most excruciating experience they’ll endure in their lives.
TV should be entertaining. It should provide a window on the world, but reality shows, and their producers need to always remember that they have a responsibility to safeguard the emotional wellbeing of those whom they expect to generate audience as well as to provide entertainment for public consumption.
The reality of reality TV without regulation and the imposition of standards is a lot of human collateral damage and the pervading belief that what is actually a creative construct is, in fact, social acceptable or even desirable.
And I don’t know about you, but that’s not a reality I want to see or experience.
If you’re struggling emotionally or experiencing suicidal thoughts, the following organisations may be able to offer you the help and support you need:
National Suicide Prevention Helpline UK. Offers a supportive listening service to anyone with thoughts of suicide. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Helpline UK on 0800 689 5652 (6pm–3:30am every day).
Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM). You can call the CALM on 0800 58 58 58 (5pm–midnight every day) if you are struggling and need to talk. Or if you prefer not to speak on the phone, you could try the CALM webchat service.
Shout. If you would prefer not to talk but want some mental health support, you could text SHOUT to 85258. Shout offers a confidential 24/7 text service providing support if you are in crisis and need immediate help.
Papyrus HOPELINEUK. If you’re under 35 and struggling with suicidal feelings, or concerned about a young person who might be struggling, you can call Papyrus HOPELINEUK on 0800 068 4141 (weekdays 10am-10pm, weekends 2pm-10pm and bank holidays 2pm–10pm), email email@example.com or text 07786 209 697.
Nightline. If you’re a student, you can look on the Nightline website to see if your university or college offers a night-time listening service. Nightline phone operators are all students too.
C.A.L.L. If you live in Wales, you can call the Community Advice and Listening Line (C.A.L.L.) on 0800 132 737 (open 24/7) or you can text ‘help’ followed by a question to 81066.