Psychologists and producers who have worked in reality television have warned that the industry must do more to protect participants who are being “exploited and spat out” by the experience.
After the death of the former Love Island contestant Mike Thalassitis, current and former members of production teams in the hugely popular genre said contributors often had no idea of the mental health risks attached to their sudden fame, and called for regulation to address the risks.
Thalassitis’s death follows the suicides last year of the Love Island contestant Sophie Gradon and her boyfriend, Aaron Armstrong. Amid warnings from other participants that shows such as Love Island fail in their responsibility to cast members after they leave the show, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, called on the shows to do more.
The behavioural psychologist Jo Hemmings, who has worked for shows such as Big Brother, said the support on offer varied greatly. She said the question went beyond aftercare and was more about regulation in general, as there were no rules about what psychological support should be available. Neither were there rules about whether shows should even follow the advice of the psychologists commissioned to test candidates.
“Any TV company doing welfare or psychological assessments, it’s entirely down to them to believe it’s a good thing to do it. There is no obligation – so it varies hugely in the industry, from people who do nothing at all to those who really put the welfare of their contestants as a number one priority,” she said.
“The issue that was mainly raised because of Mike’s tragic death is aftercare and that is virtually non-existent in TV. For a big show like Love Island or Big Brother … I think they are often led to believe, reality contestants, or have their own expectations at the beginning of the journey that they will be successful and famous.”
Hemming added that there were shows she would not work for again after they ignored her warning that the mental health of some contestants rendered them unsuitable to appear on the programme. “I had said: ‘This person is unsuitable for the show’ and they were used. It did not pan out well,” she said, talking about her time on a well-known reality TV programme.
“I am in favour of more regulation or rules in place – this is just another way of saying people will get more protection,” she added. “I understand budgets are slim on these shows but I do, at least, think people should be able to reach out to someone who has been appointed for them … there is a big gap sometimes between recording and broadcast and people have trouble during that time.”
On Tuesday, ITV announced that it would be reviewing the level of support it provides to Love Island contestants who struggle to adapt to their new-found fame, after Thalassitis’s death. The production team behind the hit programme said they were looking at how best to support individuals, focusing particularly on helping them to deal with their instant social media fame.
Prof Robert Edelmann, who worked on Channel 4’s Wife Swap before it was axed last year, said that in the past the assessments he did had actually been used to match people up on the show, and his advice that some candidates were unsuitable had been ignored.
“I can tell you why I pulled out of doing Wife Swap. It was because, instead of listening to my advice and saying: ‘I see what you mean, we won’t use those people,’ they were pairing up people who they knew would have conflict. That’s when I said I am not doing it any more,” he said.
Edelmann said he did not know how the production company had used his reports but added: “I just got the impression that they were not erring on the side of caution with people whom I thought might have issues … they seemed to have pitted those people against each other where conflict was likely to arise.”
A spokesperson for RDF TV, which produced Wife Swap, said: “We have always taken duty of care incredibly seriously for all of our shows. Should there ever be any concerns, we would investigate, regardless of whether a show dates back over 15 years.”
Honey Langcaster-James, a psychologist who also works with reality TV shows, said the assessment for Love Island was thorough the year she did it. “The production team take the duty of care to participants very seriously. They do ensure there is involvement of trained psychological services both before, during and after, and I know that to be the case, and I would say that we need to be careful. There are always improvements to be made in welfare services and would like to see more research.”
But a producer on well-known reality TV shows said that aftercare was typically inadequate. “From what I’ve seen, the aftercare pretty much stops with the first screening or wrap party if the contributors are invited to one,” the producer said. “Once the series has aired you can bet those contributors are only contacted again if it’s to book them for another series or a spin-off show.”
Another producer said he had discussed with colleagues in the past how “some of these reality stars are being done a disservice by the production companies and commissioning channels that are happy to exploit them and then spit them out”.
He said: “The contributors themselves, of course, are aware to an extent of their exploitation, and those with most ambition wilfully embrace it seeing it as a mutually beneficial agreement – the show gets its cast and the cast gets fame and fortune through very little effort of their own … However, some of the contributors aren’t as ready for it all as they think they are.”
In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.