The Reality of Life After Reality Television

People have long been fascinated with the lives of everyone around them. Gossip is as old as man and keeping up with the Jones’ is a concept we are all too familiar with. With the popularity of television and movies and the intersection with obsession in the lives of those around us, it’s no surprise how popular reality television is. In 1973, the first American reality television series, An American Family, was aired. This 12 episode, documentary-style piece chronicled the life of the Loud family, and while it was intended to show the intimate moments of the “average” American family it ended up showing one of the children’s coming out stories and the mother asking her husband for a divorce, ultimately revealing a picture of a true American family. Even though this show aired in 1973, PBS was accused by the Loud family of having been “edited to emphasize the negative.”

It’s no surprise that reality television is often not very real and only shows one specific narrative or angle of the people involved, who are often times assigned an archetype—whether it be the villain or the drunk or the flirt. Dr. Jorja Leap of UCLA says that because American audiences see things as black and white, producers decide before taping who will be the ‘good guy’ and the ‘bad guy.’ Dr. Jamie Huysman, a psychologist specializing in helping reality stars, finds that people don’t know how they’ll be presented until the show airs or until they re-enter the real world and realize they’re beloved or hated.

Almost 50 years after An American Family, reality TV is everywhere from the The Voice, The X Factor, Keeping Up with the KardashiansThe Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Big Brother and Love Island, to name a few. Appearing on a reality TV show is becoming more common, and for some, a career. People don’t just have to go on reality TV to win the grand prize to become rich and famous; they just need to create enough of an impression on audiences to gain endorsements, sponsors, build a social media following and become an “influencer” or “instagram model.”

With millions of viewers, the American public in particular laps up all of this footage, on television, in the media and on social media, but when the cameras stop rolling, the reality of reality TV often becomes all too real. Recently on March 16, 26-year-old Michael Thalassitis was found dead by suicide. Thalassitis was a former contestant on the 2017 season of the British reality television show, Love Island. Love and condolences poured out across the internet, yet articles couldn't help but refer to Mike from his nickname as “Muggy Mike,” the British slang term referring to Mike’s flirtatious behavior on the dating show. Often on the show, if one contestant was dumped by their partner, they were “mugged off.” Even in death, Thalassitis couldn’t escape the narrative that producers of the television show had created.

Thalassitis is not the first Love Island contestant to apparently take their own life. Sophie Gradon, a contestant on the 2016 Love Island season died last June at the age of 32, and while police are still investigating her death, many of the messages from her friends alluded to the state of Gradon’s mental health. Her family, however, does state that Gradon didn’t kill herself, but Malin Andersson, one of Sophie's friends and a Love Island co-star from her season, insisted that the show did not provide enough care to support the contestants and their mental health after it concluded.

This is a common complaint across many reality TV shows. Tracey Jewel, star from Married at First Sight, was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after her show aired. She has stated, “my mental health issues now are a direct reflection of going on the show,” and, “I’m not receiving any support care.” Jewel later overdosed on medication after receiving online abuse, but thankfully survived and avoided becoming one of the 21 reality TV stars that have committed suicide in the past decade, according to a 2014 article by The Independent.

Emily Simms echoed Jewel’s complaints. Simms was a contestant on The Bachelor, and after she was portrayed as the villain of the series, she received death threats. Simms has also been diagnosed with PTSD. Simms was quoted as saying, "I couldn't get out of bed. I'd have nightmares about cameras being in my face.” Simms also felt that the aftercare of the show was unhelpful because it was coming from the very company that made her appear as a villain.

Jewel stated that she didn’t receive any aftercare whatsoever.

Alex Bowen, another Love Island star, discussed that he was on medication for anxiety after appearing on the show. Jade Goody, a contestant on Big Brother, was called a “pig” and “one of the most hated women on British TV” by a newspaper columnist because of her portrayal as “bitchy” and “two-faced.” A 15-year-old girl was even beaten up because she was once mistaken for Goody.

Certainly this can be seen as a chicken-or-the-egg scenario. While reality television shows screen for mental illness and for people who react poorly under pressure, and while there are therapists and psychologists on hand during the filming of the show, are people with histories of depression or anxiety more likely to try to get on reality television or is reality television pushing people to the brink? It’s often joked that no one sane would ever appear on national television to be judged or mocked by others, but truly is it sane for anyone to watch and judge these people for living their lives?

Chris O’ Sullivan from the Mental Health Foundation believes that reality show participants are looking for validation stemming from deep-rooted insecurities, and that appearing on a reality television show destroys people’s images of themselves. Dr. Huysman believes that being on reality television is equatable to addiction to drugs or alcohol, and shows evidence of deeper emotional issues. Dr. Richard Levak, a personality expert, ponders, “Does [appearing on reality television] attract people with a higher rate of instability? Are people who are unstable more interested? Or do the vagaries of reality TV precipitate people killing themselves?”

Perhaps it’s simply a combination of the two. In an age fixated on living an Instragammable life, people with anxieties and concerns go on a platform where everyone can judge and criticize their highly-edited moves only to have those insecurities heightened to the point that their mental health collapses. Reality television is a bit like if your worst enemy had control of your Snapchat or Instagram for a day, and complete access to your life. Everyone has insecurities, but I think very few can withstand the brutal unfiltered judgment of millions, especially with social media allowing unprecedented access to stars and their families.

It’s unclear what the next step is, but it’s obvious that networks can’t just carefully screen contestants for their mental status before the show. These shows need to take care of their contestants afterward, as well. And while ending reality television altogether is drastic and unrealistic when it comes to the amount of people looking for fame or love or money and the amount of satisfaction and advertising revenue that comes with this kind of content, reality TV cannot continue to create narratives that defame its participants.