Note: The following article contains discussion of themes including suicide that some readers may find upsetting.
Love Island is the most-watched TV show in the 16-34 age bracket, and the 2018 series broke records for ITV2 by bringing in its biggest ever audience. Over the summer, the show became something of a pop culture movement.
The line-up of young, vibrant singles, all ready to spend six weeks in the sun in the name of entertainment, become some of the most sought-after celebrities in an instant. And yet, within the last year, two former contestants have died by suicide.
Sophie Gradon passed away, aged 32, in June of last year. She took part in Love Island’s 2016 series along with Tom Powell and Olivia Buckland, to name a few.
Mike Thalassitis, part of the Love Island 2017 cast and Celebs Go Dating's 2018 line-up, was found dead last weekend. He was 26 years old.
While it would be irresponsible to speculate about possible circumstance or reason, each tragic story instantaneously spurred a wider conversation around reality television and the impact it might have on a contestants' mental health.
The topic even prompted a response from Parliament, with the minister for suicide prevention Jackie Doyle-Price branding the news of Mike’s death as a "wake-up call for all of us" during an interview with Emma Barnett on BBC Radio 5 Live.
It is widely accepted that television shows have a duty of care to their contestants.
Love Island has been keen to outline the "continuous and ongoing" support that it offers its cast. It starts at the pre-filming stage, extends across the show process and continues after filming ends.
Nevertheless, there's been much debate as to its effectiveness this week and a number of former islanders have criticised the level of support on offer to them.
Jonny Mitchell, who starred in the 2017 series alongside Thalassitis, told BBC Radio 5 Live that "the only time I ever had a call off that show offering any kind of counselling or help was yesterday, obviously after Mike’s died."
After her friend and fellow co-star Gradon passed away last year, Love Island’s 2016 contestant Malin Andersson also revealed that she thought the show should have done more.
"I don't blame the show itself, because we asked to go on it, but I think the care received wasn't enough," Malin told Digital Spy previously. "If someone is crying for help, like Sophie kind of did, and asked for help after it, with a psychiatrist or whatever, I think that they should have noted that and realised."
Malin explained that the show does "psych tests" to ascertain whether cast are "fit to be in the villa", but she argued that more support was needed after the fact.
ITV confirmed that Love Island work closely with "both an independent GP and a psychological consultant" in order to assess "the physical and mental health of each of the shortlisted cast members" as well as their "suitability for inclusion on the programme."
Digital Spy spoke exclusively to Fiona Murden, Chartered Psychologist and author of Defining You, who suggested that the instant fame achieved from this genre of television can be "quite destabilising".
"The fact that reality TV show celebrities have entered into the running for these programmes in the first place suggests that they want that fame but that doesn’t mean they know what to expect if and when they get it," said Murden. "It can feel confusing, they can feel like they’ve literally lost ownership of their own life."
What's more, Murden points out that the competitive nature of the shows married with the close-knit interaction with fellow contestants can trigger "feel-good" responses. But when it all stops, these neurochemicals are no longer produced and "this will literally feel like being taken off a drug."
Malin Andersson told us about the ‘comedown' she felt after her Love Island experience, claiming that reality contestants can struggle to adjust to their new lives in the spotlight – as well as dealing with the fame fading away.
"A few months go [by], then a year, and you're kind of chasing this dream that you've got. Work's dying down a bit, you're struggling a little bit, and you're trying to maintain and comparing yourself to other islanders, in terms of work aspects," she warned.
Sue Cowan-Jenssen, a psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), told us that, if and when the public's intense interest starts to die down, contestants could be left feeling "unwanted" or like a "failure".
Gogglebox star Chris Ashby-Steed shared these sentiments during a recent interview on Victoria Derbyshire: "It makes you feel like a failure, because I think when people go onto these shows they think it's going to be paved in gold for them."
"They think all these opportunities are going to be chucked at them out there and they can pick and choose what they want," he continued. "That is just so for some of it – but unfortunately there's always going to be someone younger, prettier, someone a lot better looking and a lot more charismatic than you and you'll be replaced."
The unique experience of having been on a reality show could also spur feelings of isolation. "You go back into the world, and you've been through something that none of your friends and peers can understand," psychotherapist Cowan-Jenssen added.
Big Brother's Laura Carter, who appeared on the 17th series back in 2016, has said that her experience was not what she thought it would be. An actress and model before she became a BB housemate, she believes she was "completely manipulated and set up" by the way she was edited on the programme.
While Laura said that she was given psychological evaluations before going into the house, she told us that it wasn't until afterwards that she felt a need for mental health care.
"I don’t care how many mental health evaluations I’d had before I’d gone in - I was absolutely fine and so happy - it was after [the show] that I needed it and I got absolutely nothing.
"I was left to fend for myself and it left me in a very dark, lonely place. I feel like they’d taken my soul from my body. I was a shell of myself."
Big Brother no longer airs in the UK, so Channel 5 and Endemol Shine UK declined to comment.
This week, following widespread debate, Love Island revealed that it will be making some changes for the upcoming 2019 series. Recognising that the aftercare process should be an "evolving" one, ITV confirmed that they hired physician Dr Paul Litchfield to review its protocol internally six months ago.
"The key focus will be for us to no longer be reliant on the islanders asking us for support but for us to proactively check in with them on a regular basis," the statement read.
While this can only be seen as a step in the right direction, we would argue that the responsibility does not - and should not - end with the production companies.
Social media trolling seems to be an issue that continuously rears its ugly head. Along with celebrity status comes a burst of new social media fans; last year, for example, each Love Island finalist left the villa with over 1 million followers.
With the good comes the bad, and many reality stars, from all number of shows, have shared experiences of being inundated with negative comments from viewers. This can range from body-shaming, to threats, to the public passing judgement based on the footage that is shown on their television screens.
Jonny Mitchell, who presented as quite a controversial character during his stint on Love Island (even sparking a statement from Women’s Aid), shared the "ridiculous amounts" of trolling he experienced when his TV appearance came to an end. "A lot of people were [trolled], but I had a particularly bad time of it," he explained.
After Holly Hagan was introduced as a member of the Geordie Shore, she experienced a wave of negativity online which left her feeling really low. Holly revealed in a 2012 interview that she had been repeatedly called "fat and ugly" by online commentators, and that she even "had people telling me I should kill myself".
"There were times when I wouldn't come out of my room for a week," she told Now at the time. "I would literally lock the door and refuse to speak to anybody."
"Bullying online [is] incredibly damaging," Cowan-Jenssen said. "It's the feeling of being incredibly exposed… They've got a constructed social persona that's out there, and then it's being ripped apart."
"[Trolling] can have a massively negative impact on an individual. They are not, in effect, able to fairly defend themselves as would be the case in a real life scenario – they are literally defenceless and hence become highly emotionally vulnerable," psychologist Fiona Murden said, noting that social media removes the standard 'cause and consequence' of human interaction.
She also revealed that "numerous studies have shown a link between social media use and increased depression and anxiety" – although she was careful to point out that "the impact is different for different people".
Sophie Gradon had been campaigning for awareness around cyber bullying in the weeks before her death. Talking at a conference in Leeds in 2018, she said that "trolls leave you feeling vulnerable, unsafe and upset."
"I descended into quite a dark dark place owing to the amount of negativity focused towards me," she said.
Of course, the buzz of online conversation can stretch far further than social media platforms.
"I was reading awful tweets, headlines and news articles about me whilst I’d been in the house. I’d found out that friends had been asked to do interviews on me, I just felt like the whole world was against me," Big Brother's Laura Carter told us, noting that the negative press felt "constant".
"Imagine I hadn’t been a strong, thick-skinned person that could rise above it all... I am so grateful for the strength I found and the support from my family – because if I hadn’t had that, I think it would have been very different," she continued. "Someone in a different position might not have been able to deal with it and that is why I’m speaking out now."
Laura also warned that anyone looking to sign up for a reality show needs to be "fully aware" of what they're getting into.
Of course, there are many reality TV stars have taken something very positive from their experience. Olivia Attwood, breakout star from Love Island series three, has credited her time on the ITV2 show as having greatly improved how she felt about herself.
The 27-year-old revealed that she had been on antidepressants and was having a "really tough time" before her appearance in the villa.
"Love Island saved me," Attwood told The Sun this week. "I got a lot of heat in the villa for the way I was, but after I came out so many girls said how they related to me. I finally found this sense of self-acceptance that I never had before."
Olivia did admit, though, that she finds certain social media comments difficult to deal with, revealing that viewers "feel like they know you" after tuning in for weeks on end.
Psychotherapist Cowan-Jenssen explained that this is quite a unique experience for reality stars. "If you're an actress, you're playing a part. There is that distance," she told us. "These people... This is supposed to be them. So they've got nowhere to hide."
"I was bombarded by people’s opinions. I found it very overwhelming,"Attwood continued in her interview with The Sun, adding: "Something needs to change."
We would encourage anyone who identifies with the topics raised in this article to reach out. Organisations who can offer support include Samaritans on 116 123 (www.samaritans.org), and Mind on 0300 123 3393 (www.mind.org.uk). Readers in the US are encouraged to contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 1-800-273-8255 or visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
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