I recall being 16 years old and transfixed to the television screen. Tonight was the night. Everyone was talking about it. It was a Saturday night and it was the Pop Idol final. I was glued to the edge of my seat, eagerly awaiting the results. As I sat in the comfort of my family home, feet up with a cup of tea, I watched on as one of the finalists was rapidly losing confidence, perspiring under the bright studio lights, desperately begging the audience to vote for him and stuttering as the masses of results from the public rolled in. They purposefully dragged it out. The lights got brighter, the music louder and cheers from the crowd bellowed from beyond. I remember thinking to myself, poor guy, what’s going to happen to his confidence if he doesn’t win? More to the point: Why am I watching this in the first place? Was it because I genuinely liked the sound of their voices covering songs I had heard a million times before, or did I secretly like having the power of holding people’s destinies in my hands, knowing that people all over the country were feeling the same way? I was allowed to feel sorry for them, excited for them or even dislike them, and with a mere 50p phone call I could manipulate their destiny. Their future was in my hands!
But can I really go as far as to compare a 50p phone vote to that of a Gladiators fate determined by the crowd’s ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’? Okay, so we can’t exactly accuse the likes of Simon Cowell of placing people’s lives on the line in the literal sense – it’s not as though contestants have to slay boars three times the size of them or wrestle wild lions to the ground. Perhaps though, society could go as far as to accuse some of the producers of reality TV shows of placing people’s lives on the line in a more emotional sense.
Reality is defined as “the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them”. But who exactly defines this? We are surrounded by reality TV shows, but do they really portray reality? I mean, how many of us suddenly wake up one day and have become a global superstar overnight and what mental pressure must this surreal notion place on people? I don’t think we can even begin to imagine what that must feel like. People are literally putting their futures in the hands of unacquainted strangers through a television screen. And questions must be asked as to who these audiences are and more importantly what their motives are. Are they really there to help people become a success in life or just participants in a game, playing with other people’s futures?
Andy Warhol once said “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” But ‘At whose expense?’ appears to be the question on lots of people’s minds…
Emily Marsden, a specialist psychiatric Nurse, who works with young people presenting with their First Episode of Psychosis explains how an overnight celebrity suddenly becomes very vulnerable. “The media have the power to either maintain or crush their overnight status depending on what sells at the time. I imagine that the people in the media industry who are responsible for their overnight fame are more concerned about making money than whether that person is feeling okay and being well supported.”
When looking at reality TV and mental health, there have been a plethora of cases which have bought the subject to media attention and some much more ongoing ethical debates amongst professionals. In 2006, a Big Brother contestant, Shahbaz Chaudry, shockingly claimed he wanted to take his own life whilst being broadcast live on television. Not surprisingly, controversy and ethical debate arose after the contestant was placed on ‘suicide watch’ and denied exit from the house after requesting to leave. He was subsequently pulled out of the show after increasing concerns were raised around his mental wellbeing. Unsurprisingly, this raised questions around how much support the contestants were being given and whether or not they were intentionally pushed to their limits to increase entertainment and viewing; in other words, whether or not he had been exposed to intentional exploitation. Marsden agrees that reality programmes regularly exploit those with mental health problems in the name of entertainment: “In general, reality TV is purely a form of entertainment and unfortunately doesn’t seem to exist to teach people anything. I feel that in a lot of instances, TV producers go for the ‘shock factor’ to get good viewing figures, which often means issues aren’t covered very sensitively. This can often mean people with mental health issues are depicted as ‘odd’ or different to you and I – when the ‘reality’ is that mental health issues can affect anyone.”
Big Brother producers, in a response to the incident, claimed that contestants are screened by professionals to ensure that they are psychologically stable and able to cope with such experiences. Is this good enough though? Marsden hopes that “firstly, contestants have someone that regularly meets with the person to check that they are coping – ideally someone with psychology training that can provide therapeutic support if needed. I would also hope that producers and channel executives would have some awareness of the pressures and make sure people are not put under too much pressure – I’m sure that doesn’t happen. I would want to make sure they were aware of all the pressures and negative aspects that come with being on TV/in the spotlight so that they weren’t going in to it blind”.
Another high profile example of the pressure that fame can place on a person’s mental health is the alleged ‘mental breakdown’ that Susan Boyle endured after coming runner up on the reality show Britain’s Got Talent. Concerns were made public after Susan was rushed to a private psychiatric unit the day after the competition finale. This too led to numerous viewer concerns that she was not provided with the correct duty of care by the producers of the show. This speed of overnight fame and public exposure must be enough for anyone to find hard to grasp.
Thankfully, after making a good recovery, Susan went on to become a global superstar with support from friends, professionals and even backing from the media. Perhaps in turn, shining the light for those with mental health problems and in turn potentially projecting positive outcomes which show that mental health problems do not necessarily hinder success on reality TV shows. The public embraced Susan, even those who didn’t watch the show were able to follow her journey due to the vast coverage in the media; some even termed her a ‘national treasure’. She had been exposed to the world and had shown everyone that she could overcome mental health problems and that it would not hinder her future success.
Marsden discusses how reality TV shows could also be used to help tackle some of the stigma surrounding mental health problems. “For example, well made ‘fly on the wall’ documentaries can definitely tackle the stigma surrounding mental illness. I do however think it’s difficult to get that right as it’s a sensitive and complex subject. People making the programmes need to have a good understanding of mental illness themselves or they risk reinforcing stereotypes.”
On the flip side of this, there have also been a handful of high profile cases of people who have entered reality TV contests and been denied continuation in the competition due to the fact that they have disclosed a current or historic mental health issue. This may well highlight the high levels of discrimination still apparent within the world of show business and perhaps even more so their conceptions of the stigma this may bring from the wider public. It perhaps leads us to question the ignorance of the TV producers; just because you have a mental health problem, it shouldn’t automatically exclude you from being a contestant. We live in a nation of equal opportunities and a history of mental health problems wouldn’t legally be able to impact your employment aspects, so why a reality TV show? Where do we draw the line? Another point to also consider is what negative affects rejection may have on a person’s mental health and on a larger scale: the fight against stigma and discrimination. Marsden emphasises the need to make more effort to portray people with mental health issues as normal people “rather than highlighting their differences or exaggerating their weaknesses”.
Reality TV is a culture that defines a huge part of my generation. Sometimes it seems as though people around me are more interested in voting off the latest Big Brother contestant, keeping someone in the jungle or paying to see a contestant on the X Factor win the Christmas number 1 (again). I often wonder how many of these people vote in the general elections or even know the name of their local MP.
It is apparent that much more education and insight is needed for the producers of reality TV shows and not just around mental health issues but also on the impact that ‘overnight fame’ can have on anyone, regardless of their psychiatric history.
More consideration needs to be given as to whether the entertainment aspect of making these shows really outweighs the ethical impact it has on issues such as human exploitation. None of us can fully predict what such a phenomenon of becoming famous overnight would do to our mental health, hence the necessity for appropriate psychological support and mental preparation beforehand, during and after the process.
But on the flip side, why should mental health disclosure affect the opportunity to enter these contests? After all, with the right support and sensitivity around these issues perhaps more people will feel able to enter these competitions and be able to spin some of the unfortunate existing negative stigma and portray mental health in a more positive light. Some may even view people with mental health problems as stronger than the ‘average Joe’; having already battled through problems they may be more mentally resilient and prepared for challenges and difficult circumstances. They are also perhaps more able to accept the rejection and also put into perspective the bigger picture and (crucially) the more important things in life.
By Christina Clark, Psychiatric Nurse