The Mental Health realities of Reality TV

Updated: Jul 31, 2019

Article originally published in Northern Woman Magazine, August 2019

Audrey will also be joining Jasmine Dotiwala to discuss Love Island on The Scene on Thursday July 18th, 9.30pm

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The ITV phenomenon "Love Island" has sauntered out of the water in its bathing suit for Season 5, and while it has drawn in a peak viewership of 3.7million (Glamour Magazine, 2019) it is as divisive as Marmite. You could say "It is what it is" - a simple form of entertainment and if you don't like it, just switch off. But should we be so superficial?

Mental health

We cannot ignore that two previous contestants committed suicide. While this cannot of course be directly linked to the show, and certainly as a psychologist I am very wary of assigning responsibility for a personal act outside the person, it does perhaps raise questions over:

Appropriate support and aftercare

Can contestants ever be prepared for the overwhelming interest (and extreme emotion - both positive and negative) expressed about them? We know how many actors or footballers struggle to cope - and they have often had both training and gradual exposure.

24/7 scrutiny by the camera

On a Reality TV show, not only is being filmed an unusual situation but the camera rolls while asleep too. This gives no respite. There are no secrets. Worse still, we are not the editors of our own story. 24 hours of footage is condensed, perhaps taken out of context to create a narrative over which we have no control. In his book 'The Presentation of self in everyday life' Goffman speaks of the importance of 'backstage areas'. A place where we can prepare, where we might be able to realign our actions, especially if we need to put up a united front, a place where we can remember who we are without the label and its related demands.

24/7 time spent with others

Problematically too is spending so much time with others. We may struggle to remain 'nice' or even polite because in the real world we can walk away...on a TV show there's still the camera. This can lead to us suppressing our authenticity, as well as potentially be an environment which breeds aggression. Let us not forget that the premise of most reality TV is a contest, so competition already exists.

Hochschild coined the term 'emotional labour' in the 80s to describe the emotional behaviours one had to display within a job role as it 'came with the uniform'. She spoke of the teacher who has to remain calm although dealing with a volatile student, or even the bride who feels she needs to 'smile' because it is expected. This need to manage our emotions causes extra stress and if there is no support including a place to take a break, it can lead to burnout. (Tang, 2013). Participants in reality TV are performing such labour 24/7.

The effect of unconscious projection

As humans we connect with what we see, and our brains have trouble separating fantasy from reality when it comes to experiencing emotions. We can get as invested in soap characters as our own relationships because empathy often means we simply experience the emotional reaction to their story without fully appreciating that it is not related to us personally. This can cause many problems if we have been through what we are seeing (or think we are seeing), especially if it was a negative experience for us. If we have not worked through our specific experience, understood our role in what happened (even if we were not to blame), any residual anger or negative emotional memory can be unconsciously or otherwise directed onto the person we see as behaving in the manner that hurt us. This is damaging to both ourselves and the object of our projections.

Unpredictable audience reaction

While audiences discuss and analyse - and produce quite cruel memes and hash tags about contestants - are they forgetting they are talking not about characters written in a drama, but people who might see them? (Not forgetting that these are also people whose performance has been edited, often without their knowledge or approval).

One thing I would concede is that at least it is opening the dialogue over healthy and unhealthy emotional behaviours...but at what price? As I write, one evicted Love Island contestant is in a safe house following audience perception of coercive behaviour.

Whenever I deliver any training I emphasise that while one can do the best they can to put across a certain message, it is still left to the recipient how they perceive it. This potential for a huge negative reaction would trouble me ethically within a social experiment, let alone entertainment. I have to question, is this type of unpredictability in any subsequent “fame” what any contestant would ever knowingly and reasonably consent to? If it is, what does that say about our current world?

Audrey is a Chartered Psychologist (CPsychol), and the author of "The Leader's Guide to Mindfulness" (2018) and "Be A Great Manager - Now" (2016) She is a CPD Accredited speaker, trainer, and qualified FIRO-B and NLP Practitioner. She is the founding Development Coach and Training Consultant with her training consultancy CLICK Training, and the resident psychologist on The Chrissy B Show (Sky191), the UK's only TV programme dedicated to mental health and wellbeing. She consults, coaches and often presents at National and International conferences in the fields of leadership and team cohesion, as well as being part of the Amity University conference panel.  She currently lectures in Personal Development and Mindfulness and provides psychological consultancy in these areas to organisations. Website: Twitter: @draudreyt 

©2019 by Resilient Health: Wellness before the point of crisis.