Health

The Reality TV Industry Needs to Provide Proper Aftercare

The tragic death of 'Love Island' participant Mike Thalassitis once again raises questions about support for reality TV stars.
Lauren O'Neill
London, GB
March 18, 2019, 1:45pm
Mike Thalassitis
Mike Thalassitis. Photo: WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

UPDATE 20/03/2019: This morning, Richard Cowles, Creative Director of ITV Studios, issued a statement detailing Love Island's commitment to providing better aftercare for contestants. The letter states that the show's aftercare process is "constantly evolving," but promises that contestants will now be proactively offered therapy after appearing on the show (the previous system meant that contestants had to approach ITV in order to access counselling) and outlines the mental healthcare practices the show already has in place. Cowles also writes that, six months ago, ITV enlisted Dr Paul Litchfield, a Chief Medical Officer, to carry out a review of Love Island's healthcare practices. He states that the review has "led us to extend our support processes to offer therapy to all Islanders and not only those that reach out to us. And we will be delivering bespoke training to all future Islanders to include social media and financial management."

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This is good news, but there are still more questions to be answered: how long will contestants be offered post-show therapy for? And will this system be rolled out not just for Love Island, but for the stars of all of ITV's growing number of reality programmes? VICE reached out to ITV this morning for further comment, but they did not add anything to the initial statement.

Over the weekend, the body of Mike Thalassitis – a former semi-pro footballer, and a contestant on the 2017 series of Love Island – was found in a park in Edmonton, north London. He was 26 years old.

Once again, important questions have been raised about the mental health of reality television stars – issues that came to public attention last year, following the death of 2016 Love Island contestant Sophie Gradon, by suicide, at the age of 32.

Following the confirmation of Thalassitis' passing by his management, a number of previous Love Island contestants spoke out via social media about their experiences of the show's handling of psychological care. On Saturday, season two's Rachel Fenton tweeted, "You get a 'chat' with a mental health nurse before you enter the villa but that's it. Not a single thing after you leave." Season three's Dom Lever added, "You get a psychological evaluation before and after you go on the show but hands down once you are done on the show you don't get any support unless you're number one." Love Island series three contestant Jess Shears tweeted: "Shows offer you 'support', but realistically it’s only while you are in their care. Minute you get home & [sic] are no longer making them money it’s out of sight out of mind."

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Last year, as season four of Love Island aired, I wrote about the mental health support available to contestants after a clear incident of gaslighting played out with no obvious criticism from producers. At the time, psychologists told me that the reality television industry is unregulated – and even now, months on, there remain no industry-wide standards for mental health care, despite the immense pressure of both appearing on reality TV and returning to the "real world" after filming.

Speaking to the BBC last year, a Love Island spokesperson noted that, "We discuss with islanders, before and after the show, how their lives might change and the difficulties they might face. We direct them towards taking on professional representation after the villa, and help them through this process, so that they have experienced help as they face those pressures."

In a statement provided to Metro on Sunday, a spokesperson for Love Island and ITV said, "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. 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."

This is true: before filming, contestants are put through a psychological evaluation, and during filming they have access to an onsite counsellor. However, after filming – as TV psychologist Jo Hemmings tells me – there's no legal obligation for a show to support participants. She says, "What you would get at best is a week of access to a psychologist after you come out, but that’s when you're particularly in the press spotlight. But beyond that I don’t know of any companies that do anything more."

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All mental health care is paid for by a show's production company, which can be a barrier to contestants being offered proper support. I ask Jo what an ideal aftercare package would look like, and she admits that "the ideal aftercare package is probably unrealistic, for financial reasons as much as anything else". However, from her point of view as an experienced psychological consultant for reality TV, production companies should offer "access to a psychologist, say, for a period of two years after appearing on a big show. At any time contestants are feeling anxious, concerned or worried, they should at least be able to contact someone like me by email, phone or text and have a chat and get some reassurance, so they’re not afraid to say how they feel. I think allowing something for access to somebody like me is not an expensive thing and would make [production companies] much more socially responsible."

Jess Shears pointed out on Twitter that, along with mental health support, reality shows should offer contestants financial advice – a reference to the fact that many go on to become social media stars, offered brand endorsements and deals.

As with anything, social media has enormously impacted the nature of reality TV celebrity. Before the prevalence of Instagram and Twitter, many of the stars on big UK shows like Big Brother and X Factor would simply finish filming and return to normal life. This undoubtedly brought its own share of stresses, like initial disorientation and feelings of failure (in 2009, former Apprentice contestant Raef Bjayou told the Guardian that some of his fellow participants "felt a bit disillusioned" when the media opportunities after the show were not as they'd hoped). But in today's climate, the situation is very different, and arguably much worse.

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In contrast with shows like the Channel 4 iteration of Big Brother, Love Island (and others, such as MTV’s Ex on the Beach) has an aspirational tone. These programmes cast people who already represent aesthetic ideals, and so they quickly develop large social media followings and garner instant tabloid attention as soon as they return to reality.

Jo tells me that, for many, this can be difficult. "When [contestants] come out of a show which has propelled them, they then try to continue that fame. That might be going into something like [E4's] Celebs Go Dating, but if not they have to maintain an image of everything being good in order to get more work – they kind of create a social media persona, where everything's all jolly and it’s marvellous," she says. "Meanwhile, they may not be getting anywhere, they don’t know what to do, they’ve got no self-validation because people are being highly critical of them. They literally live in a twilight zone while having to put out a confident persona on social media, which looks like they’re busy, when underneath it all their self-esteem is rock bottom. And that in itself can cause anxiety and depression, because they're living almost double lives."

Social media is round-the-clock, and Jo is correct in saying that it offers reality TV stars a chance to extend their careers. But the counterpoint is that trolling can be non-stop, especially for those who haven't been edited sympathetically (it's important to remember that Love Island episodes are typically an hour of footage whittled down from 24 hours, and therefore cannot possibly represent the contestants accurately).

Where past reality TV stars had to grapple with the emotions involved in losing their fame, many current reality TV personalities sustain theirs via social media and the subsequent tabloid news cycle it generates (I wrote about this in more detail recently). For some, experiencing this level of scrutiny with no mental health support is understandably unbearable.

Former The Only Way Is Essex star Maria Fowler tweeted about her especially upsetting experiences of this cycle on Saturday, after news of Thalassitis' death broke. "I attempted suicide because of the newspapers and lack of support I got post towie [sic]. Something has to change, this is wrong. They have a moral duty to support cast members," she wrote.

And this, essentially, is what this issue comes down to. Reality TV programmes and the companies behind them must take responsibility for the stars they create. The best way to achieve this is via proper industry-wide standards and regulations, led and shaped by psychologists like Jo Hemmings, so that participants are properly cared for every step of the way: rigorous testing before appearances, constant access to support during filming, and months or years of real aftercare, with psychologists paid for by production companies.

These are the sort of provisions which could minimise the damage done to mental health by participating in shows that alter your reality – and which would, hopefully and most crucially, help to avoid more tragic deaths, like those of Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon.

@hiyalauren