Reality TV Fame Comes At A Cost — What Do Networks Owe The Cast?

Content warning: This article discusses suicide and self-harm in a way that could be distressing to some readers.
Appearing on reality television is often a fail-proof way to establish a public profile. But along with overnight fame and thousands of Instagram followers comes a level of exposure that can leave contestants susceptible to negative criticism and social media trolling.
The question arises of how much responsibility producers must take in providing sufficient mental health aftercare to reality TV participants — one that's been widely asked after the suicides of UK Love Island stars Mike Thalassitis (2019) and Sophie Gradon (2018).
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While psychological support before and during filming is paramount, many reality stars say implementing the same, if not more support, is crucial once the edited show actually goes to air as contestants face divisive viewer reactions and navigate their newfound fame.
Big Brother Royalty Vs New Contenders star Tully Smyth said in an interview published this week that mental health support provided by the show was very limited when she first appeared on Big Brother back in 2013. At the time, she faced widespread public backlash after cheating on her real-life girlfriend with co-star Anthony Drew inside the Big Brother house.
Image courtesy of Channel 7
Big Brother Royalty Vs New Contenders star Tully Smyth
"It was horrendous, I had no support… I had to reach out to the producers and tell them I was going to find my own psychologist and they were going to be paying the bill," Smyth told TV Blackbox. "You caused me all this drama, you can pay for it… you did this."
She said that now, nine years later, the mental health support provided to contestants has improved.
"There’s a wellness team, there’s a psychologist," she said. "I could tell from the minute we got to Sydney that this time round was going to be different."
In a statement provided to Refinery29 Australia, a spokesperson from the show's production company, Endemol Shine Australia said: "We take the obligations in respect to the health and wellbeing of our Housemates very seriously. Professional support is offered before, during, post shoot and beyond to all Housemates."
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Earlier this year, Married At First Sight contestant Olivia Frazer opened up about the impact that viewer backlash had had on her mental health since the show went to air. She also claimed that her employment had ended following her appearance on the show.
"It [my mental health] very much ebbs and flows," she told Yahoo Lifestyle last month after MAFS finished airing in Australia. "So I'm a bit like I have really good days where I'm like, 'Oh like water off a duck's back, I'm fine'. And then I have other days where I'm like – I'm sorry to be graphic, but I am suicidal. And I am like, 'OK don't kill yourself because you don't want Jackson to come home on that.
"And it's like – it is at a point where it's like such a severe instability in my moods and my mental health, and it's like I am feeling a lot more myself and a lot more out of the woods... that's nowhere near as bad as it was when the show was airing but I think it's just going to be skating on thin ice for a few more months until the heat dies down."
Image courtesy of Channel 9
Married At First Sight contestants Jackson Lonie and Olivia Frazer
Tracey Jewel, who starred on MAFS in 2018, has previously said that mental health aftercare for participants is imperative.
“While filming, you’re in a bubble. No one knows who you are yet. When you need care is when you get out of the other side," she told HuffPost in 2019.
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"That’s when you really need that support because you’re dealing with another layer of the media and the public knowing who you are and no one understands that and that’s when you need guidance. To tell you a big statement, ‘get off social media’, that doesn’t really help that much. It’s not very practical."
In a statement to Refinery29 Australia, a Channel Nine spokesperson said: "Nine takes its obligations in respect to the health and wellbeing of all participants extremely seriously. All participants have access to the show psychologist during filming, during broadcast and once the program has ended.
"Nine also have an additional service for participants should they like or need further individual and confidential psychological support. This service gives participants access to clinicians who have been specifically engaged to support those involved in the program in relation to their experiences. This service is available to all participants for as long as they need it, it does not end."
Last year's Bachelorette, Brooke Blurton, said one of the most important conversations she had with producers before filming began was around what resources would be provided to contestants who are concerned about bullying, racism and their mental health in general.
"Pre-filming I spoke to production about the support that’s available to myself and obviously to the contestants," Blurton previously told Refinery29 Australia.
"I wanted to reiterate the importance of it and how I feel a duty of care because I want to make sure that every participant who comes on feels supported."
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Blurton said producers informed her that psychologists were available and would conduct "regular chats" with all cast members, and while "production would have put that in place anyway", she's glad she checked beforehand.
"I made sure that I felt like the support was there. It felt comforting that they had my back and I’m really supported by everyone in my team – my family, my friends, production and the network," she said.
In a statement provided to Refinery29 Australia, a Network 10 spokesperson said a psychologist was available to all contestants for mental health support.
"As part of the show’s duty of care, all The Bachelorette participants have full access to mental health professionals as well as support from Warner Bros. Australia and Network 10 teams," read the statement.
It's important to remember that mental health support is just as important to reality TV contestants who are not on a dating show. Like those on Big Brother, MasterChef stars face their own challenges and pressures during filming and are open to public critiques when the program hits screens.
The show's first winner, Julie Goodwin opened up about her anxiety and depression in 2020, saying she was admitted to hospital for mental health issues. She recently revealed she had to consider her mental health before returning for Season 14 this year.
"[My mental health] was a massive discussion when I was asked to do [MasterChef]," she told Woman's Day. "I didn't just say yes. I talked to my family, I talked to my psychologist, and it was a decision that was made in a very considered way because at the end of the day, I didn't want to be back at the bottom of a dark place."
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She also said that production has accommodated her needs, saying, "They've worked around the filming schedule to allow me to still have my psychology appointments and to get out early in the morning to do my exercise. They touch base with me constantly to make sure I'm okay."
In a statement provided to Refinery29 Australia, Endemol Shine, the production company behind MasterChef, shared that mental health support is provided to all contestants.
"The mental health and wellbeing of contestants on MasterChef Australia is paramount, and all contestants receive the support of a dedicated psychologist," said the spokesperson. "This support is available at any time while the show is recording, on air and beyond."
With social media forming a bigger part of viewer reactions than ever before, it's essential that networks and production companies continue to deliver sufficient mental health aftercare for all cast members, long after filming's wrapped up.
If you or anyone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety, please contact Lifeline (131 114) or Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636). Support is available 24/7. 
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