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Safeguarding the Mental Health of Reality TV Contestants

With reality TV shows like "Love Island" or "Too Hot to Handle" soaring in popularity, there is increased concern regarding contestants' mental health.

(Photos from collage: Pinterest)

Reality TV has been a mainstay since the ’90s with shows like “The Real World” gracing the airwaves, and “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” reigning over the early 2000s (and still trickling into pop culture today). One would assume that with the many years of the TV genre’s existence, the craft would be fine-tuned. The reality, however, is that while camera quality, lighting, and makeup may have improved, one thing has substantially lagged behind, mental health.

With the heavy discussion surrounding the effects of Covid-19, and increased awareness of neurodiversity and mental illness, mental health and its importance have taken center stage.

(Google Trends data for "Mental Health")

Many cultural mainstays like reality TV are being re-evaluated under the lens of mental health, and the results are disheartening. Within the last few years, 3 suicides have occurred in connection to the reality TV show “Love Island”. Sophie Gradon a contestant on season 2, Mike Thalassitis a contestant on season 3, and Caroline Flack a former presenter for the show all tragically took their own lives.

The issue is structure, psychological toll, support, and regulation. In a statement by psychologist Jo Hemmings in an article by The New York Times, she notes that “the things that make reality TV entertaining are things like conflict, distress, jeopardy, the unexpected.” and that “none of these things are things we would promote in terms of mental health positivity”. Hemmings believes that what contestants are made to undergo causes psychological distress, and that they need ongoing support, even after their onscreen run to ensure mental welfare.

In response to public criticism and an inquisition by the UK parliament, ITV Productions, the studio behind Love Island has released updated “duty of care protocols” which include:

  • Training for all Islanders on the impacts of social media and handling potential negativity

  • Training for all Islanders on financial management, detailed conversations with Islanders regarding the impact of participation on the show

  • A proactive aftercare package which extends support to all Islanders following their participation on the show

  • Guidance and advice on taking on management after the show

Any creation of mental health guidelines is a step in the right direction. However, what would make a real impact is genuine change and enforcement. Enforcement would hold production studios accountable, and better ensure the well-being of contestants. A potential means to assure that guidelines are met is to have shows and their treatment of contestants be reviewed by independent ethics committees as suggested by David Wilson, professor of criminology at the University of Central England. Having an entity outside of a show’s team allows for greater impartiality, leading to an objective and ideally, thorough outcome.

In fact, in an article by The Guardian, professor Wilson, who once worked for the reality TV show Big Brother, stated that he was “quite flattered” when he was asked to work on the show, and that resulted in tendency "to ignore the more hardnosed questions about the show’s ethics”. This “tendency” is precisely the reason why impartiality is important. An individual hired by a reality show may overlook questionable conduct as they are under the show’s payroll and wish to stay in good graces, or, they become so enthralled by the opportunity that misconduct is overshadowed by opportunity.

Speaking of minimization, an important question to consider is “what is my role in all this?”. A viewer of reality TV, in light of recent events and the genre’s effects, should consider the propriety of consuming such content. “Are we as viewers enabling this?”. When an individual purchases an item or watches a show, they add to demand. When there is enough demand, producers are alerted to the fact that the audience sees the content as “high value”, which leads to continual production of that in-demand content. And without proper safeguards in place and enforcement of those safeguards, exploitation is able to continue. Unchecked.


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