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“It was the most toxic environment I’ve ever been in”: how reality TV affects the mental health of its stars

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Emily Reynolds
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Earlier this week, Jeremy Kyle’s chat show was axed by ITV bosses after the death of Steve Dymond – but how will this impact the likes of Love Island? Should reality shows be doing more to help their stars cope with the pressures of fame? Emily Reynolds investigates.

“It was the most toxic environment I’ve ever been in,” Sarah Goodhart says. She’s talking about her experiences on Geordie Shore – an experience she says exacerbated her mental health problems tenfold.

Like other reality shows, Geordie Shore has pre-show psychological evaluations – a session with a psychologist to ensure contestants aren’t mentally vulnerable or likely to struggle with the pressures of the show. Sarah says she “downplayed” her mental health problems during this process, and she was soon cast. However, it wasn’t what she expected.

She feels the producers of the show “blatantly manipulated” the scenes she appeared in; she was often given lines from a script but provided with no other context. “I had no idea what I was really doing or how I looked,” she says. “And then I realised they’d made me out to be some kind of villain”.

Far from the fun and glamorous experience she’d wanted, Sarah was left feeling like her mental health was worse than before she entered the Geordie Shore house; she describes her experience overall as “degrading”.

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Sarah’s experience with these issues isn’t unique – far from it. Following Love Island star Sophie Gradon’s death by suicide in 2018, co-star Zara Holland told The Sun that appearing on the show had made her “haunted and depressed” and “changed her” as a person. She also claimed that the show’s producers failed to contact her once she left to check how she was. 

“I didn’t hear from anyone,” said Zara at the time. “[Then] Love Island called me for the first time in two years to ask if I was OK. Funny they call me now when something ­terrible has happened.”

Telling the BBC that she wishes she had never gone on the show, Zara added: “People applying need to know how serious things can be. They see a claim to fame, they don’t see that… you’ll be haunted for the rest of your life.” 

When Stylist contacted Love Island, producers said that they couldn’t comment on individual cases. However, they did say that they have a rigorous screening process and aftercare system. Following the death of Mike Thalassitis, the second Islander to take their own life, the team released a statement outlining a three-stage system: pre-filming, filming and aftercare. 

“Care for our Islanders is a process the show takes very seriously and is a continuous process for all those taking part in the show,” it read. “We ensure that all of our Contributors are able to access psychological support before, during and after appearing on the show. The programme will always provide ongoing support when needed and where appropriate.”

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Despite this reassurance, Thalassitis’ death still caused huge public outcry – with many asking how the show could be letting contestants down so consistently?

ITV say a GP and psychological consultant will provide assessments that indicate how suitable someone might be to appear on the show; they’re also on site throughout filming to ensure there are “no emerging signs developing whilst [contestants] are in the villa”. 

Love Island's Zara Holland
Zara Holland has spoken out about her poor experiences of Love Island

And an aftercare process, which involves debrief meetings and advice on how to find a manager or agent, is supposed to help stars once filming has ceased.

However, it’s what happens after the show ends that seems to be the most problematic for contestants – something Emma Kenny points to as a major problem. Kenny works as a TV psychologist, providing psychological evaluations for documentaries (though she notes that she’s never worked on a show like Love Island), and she says it’s the stories of reality stars that have been the hardest.

“The problem with reality fame is that it’s so instantaneous,” Emma explains. “You haven’t cultivated a wider understanding of how fame impacts on your life.”

Chris Hughes, who has opened up about his anxiety after leaving Love Island

Unlike a singer or actress, for example, reality stars have not had a “steady growth of people getting to know you” – their fame has hit them immediately, often in a way they’re unsure how to manage.

“If you work in a job like that, you do tend to have some kind of gravity to your experience,” notes Emma. “You grade your fame, you get numerous chances to see if it’s something you’re enjoying or struggling with.”

But if you appear on a show like Love Island, your fame is instant. Millions of viewers will have watched you for weeks on end – and your appearances in national newspapers, at the top of Google searches and on broadcast media will ensure that those who haven’t will soon know who you are. The heavily edited cartoon villains of early shows like Big Brother may not be as prevalent in modern reality TV, but producers still have the ability to pick and choose footage – as we saw last year when Dani Dyer was shown misleading footage of her partner, Jack. 

“People will suddenly have opinions on you who have never and will never meet you, who know nothing about you,” Kenny says. “And it’s based on a very, very small amount of information, which has often been edited in a way that’s meant to present you as a certain character.”

“Dealing with that takes the highest level of resilience.”

But as Zara says, it can be hard to prepare yourself for such a reaction – and social media is a huge contributing factor. Suddenly getting millions of fans on Instagram might mean a guaranteed (but perhaps short-lived) career as an influencer – but trolling, hate mail and insecurities are also rife. Contestant Malin Anderson recently expressed dismay after an account, set up in the name of her recently deceased baby, began to message her on Mother’s Day. 

Sarah also points to the social media reaction, which in her case was not pleasant.

“I kind of knew what would happen, she said. “I knew people would be harsh critics. And [the team] do sit you down and tell you that you’ll be faced with negative comments.”

“But I don’t think anyone is really prepared for the barrage of negative comments every time you post a picture, commenting on your appearance.”

“It’s basically like signing yourself up to be publicly bullied”. 

Mike Thalassitis, who took his own life earlier this year

The abuse female contestants in particular face can “massively and dangerously affect them”, Emma says. And Natasha Page, counsellor and member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, adds that an awareness of “constantly being watched, judged and criticised” can put contestants under immense levels of pressure.

“Someone might feel like that have to portray themselves in a certain way, which can make them susceptible to losing a sense of self or who they really are,” she says. “It could also lead to feelings of anxiety, distorting their thinking patterns, and to feelings of isolation and loneliness.”

This is particularly bad for stars who spent hours away from home, Natasha says, travelling for work or public appearances – time away from friends and family can exacerbate these feelings of isolation to an unbearable degree.

The issue is clearly on the radar of the show’s viewers, too. Several fans I spoke to said that concern for the mental health of the contestants was playing on their minds: “It has affected how much I’m looking forward to the show,” Kat, 28, says. Struggling with mental health problems of her own, Kat describes Love Island as an “escape” from her anxieties. 

Contestants talking about their experiences with depression and anxiety has been hugely helpful for her – she points to 2017 stars Kem Cetinay and Chris Hughes, both of whom have talked about their experiences with mental illness. Knowing that the show might have exacerbated those problems, however, she’s less comfortable with.

But, she also points out, the responsibility doesn’t just lie with producers. As Kat well knows herself, access to mental health services in general is lacking to say the least: since 2009, the number of hospital beds for people with acute mental health conditions, where a consultant psychiatrist is on hand to oversee treatment, has fallen by almost 30%. Likewise, there have been significant falls in the number of mental health nurses working in the NHS – from 46,155 to 39,358 – and in the number of doctors in specialist psychiatry training, from 3,187 in 2009 to 2,588 in the first quarter of this year.

Essentially, although mental ill health accounts for 28% of the overall disease burden, it receives just 13% of NHS funding, according to The Centre for Mental Health. And to put any reality star’s suicide down to the show alone would be both irresponsible and an elision of the complex, nuanced reasons that someone might decide to take their own life.

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That doesn’t mean that the show can’t do better, though, and its process has recently been bulked up in the light of complaints. Six months ago, the production team employed Dr Paul Litchfield, a chief medical officer, to review and extend its support processes. Therapy will now be provided to all Islanders – not just those who ask for help.

“The key focus will be for us to no longer be reliant on the islanders asking us for support but for us to proactively check in with them on a regular basis,” the team says. Stars will also be receiving social media and financial management training – two issues that those who have appeared on the show have pointed to as particular concerns.

This kind of coaching is key, Emma believes. “It’s an absolute duty of care by the production company,” she says.

“People appearing on these shows should be made to go through things like fame coaching, where they’re made to look at the reality of sustaining a career after you leave them,” she said. “They also need to understand that appearing on the show can have huge ramifications on the rest of your life.”

Sophie Gradon - Love Island - ITV2
Sophie Gradon was found to have taken her own life, after finding fame on Love Island’s second season in 2016. 

Contestants should also be given relationship coaching, Emma says, because “it changes your level of trust”.

“You’re not sure who to trust” – as well as given better guidance on how to find an agent, something the show has already committed to. And personally, I would want it to be a bit more evident that you have no choice but to enrol in these things – you have to check in, you have to speak to somebody regularly for the first few weeks after you get out minimum.

“People need to have a place where they can explore and unwind and discuss and separate all those horrible feelings you might be building up about what’s being said about them.” 

UPDATE: Steve Dymond was found dead on 9 May, a week after filming an episode of The Jeremy Kyle Show, during which he took a lie detector test.

His death has prompted the Commons media select committee to investigate whether TV companies give guests enough support, while media regulator Ofcom is examining whether to update its code of conduct.

Damian Collins MP, chair of the digital, culture, media and sport select committee, told the BBC: “There needs to be an independent review of the duty of care TV companies have to participants in reality TV shows.

“Programmes like The Jeremy Kyle Show risk putting people who might be vulnerable on to a public stage at a point in their lives when they are unable to foresee the consequences, either for themselves or their families.

“With an increasing demand for this type of programming, we’ll be examining broadcasting regulation in this area - is it fit for purpose?”

The committee will scrutinise the psychological support provided to participants and ask who should be responsible for monitoring whether duty of care policies are being effectively applied.

It will also look at whether shows put pressure on participants to exhibit “more extreme behaviour”.

Samaritans (116 123) operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at jo@samaritans.org.

Images: ITV

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Emily Reynolds

Emily Reynolds is a journalist and author based in London. Her first book, A Beginner’s Guide to Losing Your Mind, came out in February 2017 with Hodder & Stoughton. She is currently working on her second.  

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