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Richard Jordan: Reality TV tests the entertainment industry’s commitment to mental health

The makers of programmes such as Love Island stress that support is provided for contestants once the cameras have stopped rolling. Photo: ITV
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The entertainment industry has been raising awareness of the issue of mental health among its workforce of late. Does it not also hold a responsibility in this vital and urgent cause for a duty of care within reality television production?

In recent weeks, many have been glued to ITV reality show Love Island. For those of us who have not, it’s still hard not to escape the goings-on through the media’s daily reports.

Its contestants have returned home to appearances on daytime chat shows and media interviews. Possibly for one or two, this will lead to a subsequent career in the entertainment industry.

Reality TV has turned the fame game on its head, endorsing and encouraging a ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ attitude. But reading the back-stories of some of Love Island’s contestants, you sense a significant fragility behind their facade. The search for fame is often seen as a solution to all their problems while in reality it could risk exaggerating them.

These shows often reflect the sadistic side of human nature: the viewing public takes pleasure in watching contestants being humiliated, often through a series of stunts or deprivations concocted by a group of upwardly mobile TV executives.

Even when an item on one of these shows is claimed to have shocked viewers, resulting in an outpouring of immediate disgust across social media, still nobody actually turns the TV off.

I was concerned to read a news story about Love Island contestant Georgia Steele apparently advised by her drama teacher to quit her professional training and instead take up the opportunity of appearing on the show.

It was her teacher’s belief that this opportunity would afford her a much better break in her chosen career path. This is a sorry statement about today’s entertainment industry. If such career advice is regularly given – and reported – how will it influence other performing hopefuls?

We need to ask big questions about the duty of care on these shows. The recent tragic death of former Love Island contestant Sophie Gradon, whose friends said how she became deeply depressed as her fame faded, highlights this further.

As an industry, we have spoken out about the need for professional and safe working environments that support its workers across all industry sectors. We must accept reality television is one of those sectors and legislate accordingly.

The makers of these programmes stress that the contestants’ mental health is carefully assessed, and that there is support around them once the cameras have stopped rolling. But there comes a point when this support inevitably ends. So, what happens next?

If the contestant has done something stupid onscreen – possibly in the belief that the attention was necessary to get them noticed – there is every chance it will haunt them for years to come and in whatever job they end up doing.

You can blame contestants’ naivety for failing to consider the long-term consequences of their actions. But the programme makers are fully aware of this and encourage it, knowing outrageous behaviour means strong ratings and healthy advertising revenue.

The belief these shows can enhance a career in the arts was highlighted by actor Samira Mighty’s decision to participate. She made news headlines when she suddenly quit the West End musical Dreamgirls for a place on the Love Island but her reputation was tarnished by the move.

Dreamgirls performer who quit for Love Island ‘facing legal action from production company’

Maybe Mighty’s appearance on the TV show will mean a move from understudy to lead actor, but she may just be remembered for any onscreen notoriety over her previous demonstrable singing and acting talent.

For a reality TV contestant, the volume of immediate attention that pursues them once the programme ends is excessive. However, when the public and media grow bored, then there is the risk of them developing serious mental health issues after getting a taste of ‘fame’, only to find it not sustained.

These shows are often dismissed as “a bit of fun” or justified by the programme makers as a “social experiment”. However, the emotional pressures, meltdowns and embarrassing tasks broadcast to the public are very real.

Nonetheless, their popularity means we shall inevitably see more reality shows trying outdo each other by pushing the boundaries – and their participants – to greater extremes.

One can argue that every reality contestant knows exactly what they are in for when they sign up, and I would agree. But the industry must carefully consider its moral responsibilities if the commitment to addressing mental health is to be taken seriously.

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