Natasha Devon: Love Island 2019 Just Confirms That Reality TV Is Facing A Mental Health Crisis

‘When it comes down to it there is a fundamental tension between capitalism and wellbeing’

Love Island Mental Health

by Natasha Devon |
Updated on

This week marks one year since the suicide of Sophie Gradon, star of the 2016 season of ITV2’s Love Island. Since then another former Love Island contestant, Mike Thalassitis, has also taken his life and the Jeremy Kyle show has been suspended after 14 years following the suicide of guest Steve Dymond.

These deaths have provoked an outpouring of concern from charities, campaigners, viewers and fellow stars of reality formats. Psychologist Jo Hemmings, who has worked on Big Brother, told the Guardian that the support offered to contestants ‘varied greatly’ because there was ‘no obligation’ to provide mental health support. Secretary of State for Health Matt Hancock even waded into the debate, telling delegates at the Spectator Health Summit in March “I think that people need to take responsibility for their duties to wellbeing very seriously”.

It’s clear reality TV is in crisis. Yet the soap-opera-meets-documentary format remains a firm favourite with viewers – Love Island is currently being watched by an estimated 6 million people, the TOWIE final drew in 2.6 million viewers, whilst I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! was one of the six most watched shows in 2018 (defeated only by football matches andThe Bodyguard). This leaves the makers of such shows with quite the dilemma – Should the psychological equilibrium of their stars be sacrificed at the alter of popularity and profit?

When it comes down to it, there is a fundamental tension between capitalism and wellbeing. Existing in an uber-competitive environment, imbibing a narrative which instructs you never to be content with what you have and seeing your physical beauty as a commodity which can either be bought or sold are all anathema to mental health. Fame, particularly of the overnight variety which befalls the stars of reality TV, is the pinnacle of these social narratives.

Jonny Mitchell, who starred alongside Mike Thalassitis in 2017’s Love Island told BBC 5 Live “if you come off one of the biggest shows on TV, you can’t go back to working in Tesco – it would be almost impossible. So it creates a lot of stress and strain on people”. Grazia’s ‘Where’s Your Head At’ campaign for better mental health support at work has been backed by a plethora of reality stars with first-hand experience of anxiety and depression, including Dani Dyer and Kem Cetinay.

In response, ITV pledged to provide a minimum of eight therapy sessions for Love Island contestants after they return home. Whilst better than a kick in the fanny (as my Nan would say) this seems woefully inadequate. From my perspective, the potential mental health ramifications of shows like Love Island fall into three distinct categories, each requiring a bespoke solution:

The first and most obvious is more support for the wellbeing of participants and indeed this has been the focus of most media on the topic.

The second, and far less discussed outside the echo-chambers of mental health twitter, is the wellbeing of viewers. Reality TV is predominantly watched by young people, who are being exposed to potentially damaging messages about what type of beauty and success they should aspire to. However much we might like to think we’re cleverer than that, that we only tune into the latest instalment of the Kardashians’ lives because we enjoy the ‘meta analysis’ on social media afterwards, we’re still unconsciously absorbing the notion that these are the sorts of people who should be idolised and rewarded.

And this plays into the third consideration, whether it’s the formats themselves and the type of people who partake in reality TV shows which are inherently dangerous and need to change.

When I was invited to co-present channel 4’s ‘Naked Beach’ – a reality TV format in which members of the public with body image issues are invited to live with eight naked body positivity influencers on a Greek island - I had all the reservations you’d expect. Yet something also instantly struck me as different. The stars, being body positive campaigners, had already gone through and learned how to deal with public disapproval and online hate. They were genuinely confident and at peace with themselves. The contributors weren’t particularly fame-hungry, but more importantly the viewer wasn’t invited ridicule them. They were normal people going on a relatable journey, which happened to involve the nudity we know attracts viewers.

The result was something dubbed ‘ethical reality’ within the industry. Unlike the body confidence formats which had preceded it, we weren’t asking contributors to change anything other than their perspective. The viewer was also treated to the spectacle of stars with diverse bodies in a range of shapes, sizes and colours.

Perhaps, then, there is a way to continue the lineage of reality TV without fuelling the mental health crisis. But we, the viewer, have a role in ensuring this happens. In the so-called ‘attention economy’ what we watch and click on shapes future content. Our views and interactions represent the new currency. If we make responsible decisions, following influencers who represent diversity and emanate positivity and watching programmes where no one is being exploited, we’ll see more of them in the future.

As consumers, we have more power than we realise. That isn’t to suggest, of course, that we are responsible for tragic deaths like that of Sophie Gradon’s. Yet we can help to build a future where stories like Sophie’s are no longer inevitable.

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