Reality television is harmful to participants’ mental health

By Abby Wargo


I am not a huge fan of reality tv shows. I like a few food and house hunting shows, but that is pretty much it. But when a friend introduced me to the chaos that is “Love Island,” I was hooked.

“Love Island” is a British reality show where 12 hot singles, between roughly 18-30 years old, live in a secluded island villa for six weeks to find the partner of their dreams. Each week, new couples form and the British public votes one person off the island. The winning couple has the potential to win 50,000 pounds. The show has become so popular that there are both American and Australian spinoffs as well as a mobile game. It is fast-paced, drama-filled, and absolutely ludicrous. I have binge-watched two full seasons.

Then I found out how many of the former contestants have taken their lives.

Most recently, the show’s original hostess, Caroline Flack, committed suicide in early February following an assault charge. She resigned last year due to the assault accusations and has since been denigrated online and in the media. In an Instagram post published posthumously, Flack wrote that she had been experiencing “some kind of a mental breakdown,” according to a Feb. 19 Newsweek article.

Flack is the third person associated with the show to commit suicide; season two contestant Sophie Grabon in 2018 and season four contestant Mike Thalassitis in 2019 also died. Their deaths sparked a debate about the ethics of reality TV, one that is being revisited now.

“Flack’s death will reignite concerns over the support that the broadcaster shows to those suffering mental health problems and the perceived lack of support provided by production bosses,” according to a Feb. 15 article in the Daily Mail.

Jo Hemmings, a psychologist who works on British reality TV shows, said in a New York Times article, “The things that make reality TV entertaining are things like conflict, distress, jeopardy, the unexpected. None of these things are things we would promote in terms of mental health positivity.”

She told the Times that contestants needed “ongoing support” even after the show ended because the effect of leaving was stressful, whether or not the contestant became famous afterwards.

“That is a really, really hard thing for people to take on in psychological terms,” Hemmings said.

When I heard about Flack’s death, all I could think about was: when is this going to happen on an American reality show?

Everyone’s favorite dating game show in America, it seems, is “The Bachelor.” I have only seen a few episodes, but the concept is just as bizarre and anxiety-inducing as “Love Island.” It’s been on air since 2002, and there are several spinoff shows, including “The Bachelorette” and “Bachelor in Paradise.” The concept is oddly polygamous; one bachelor/ette basically dates an entire group of people and must pick one of them to marry.

There is not much written about the mental toll on “Bachelor” contestants, but a 2018 article on details some of the possible pitfalls of being on the show, such as anxiety and loneliness.

“As if all that weren’t bad enough, the effects linger after the cameras are gone. Long-lasting relationship insecurity can lead to physical health problems like poorer sleep and anxiety, and once you’re back in the real world, you’re suddenly catapulted into social media fame. Spending more time on social media — whether you’re obsessively monitoring your mentions or defending yourself against Bachelor trolls — has been linked to a higher chance of developing depression as you compare yourself to others online,” the article said.

It is hard to argue that all of this is not going on at some level on “The Bachelor,” but no one is saying anything explicit about it. But with other reality shows like “Love Island” proving time and time again that being a contestant is not always a fun time, maybe American shows should take some precautions for the health and safety of the participants.

I can’t watch “Love Island” anymore — for me, the allure is gone. I am not saying everyone should not watch these shows anymore, but it is important to keep in mind that these reality “stars” are just ordinary people with ordinary emotions, and the existing reality TV format is not exactly healthy for contestants.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *