After Love Island Suicides, Psychologists Weigh In On Mental Health And Reality TV

PHoto: Courtesy of Hulu.
The Monday night premiere of the normally upbeat reality show Love Island took a serious turn when a dedication to former cast member who passed away came on the screen in the credits. Michael Thalassitis, who was a soccer player known to fans of the show as Mike, died by suicide in March. Thalassitis was the second contestant on Love Island to die by suicide within a year, following contestant Sophie Gradon's death last June, The New York Times reported.
Love Island, which is filmed at a luxury Spanish villa and involves beautiful people coupling up to find love while sequestered on an island, has come under fire since the suicides.
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The Love Island tragedies have led to bigger questions about reality TV and mental health. According to a count by the New York Post, 21 reality TV stars from different shows have died from suicide since 2004. British parliament has even opened an inquiry the into the treatment of reality show contestants, The Times reported. Psychologists say there are multiple aspects of this kind of entertainment that are dangerous for mental health.
“Being on a reality TV show is no doubt a huge stressor, with the potential for humiliation and shame,” Gail Saltz, M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, tells Refinery29. “These shows aren’t banking on viewers tuning in to see contestants having a jolly time. It often involves drama or something terrible, humiliating, or shameful. As a mental health professional, can’t say I’m a fan.”
ITV, the company that produces Love Island, just released new guidelines in May that address the mental health of the contestants. According to the ITV guidance, contestants will now have access to more psychological support, including “detailed conversations with potential Islanders regarding the impact of participation on the show, bespoke training for all Islanders on social media and financial management, and a proactive aftercare package which extends our support to all Islanders following their participation.” ITV has not yet responded to a request for comment.
But Dr. Saltz says taking care of contestants’ mental health should start before the show is cast, with the screening of participants. She believes that contestants should go through an intense vetting process to ensure someone who may already be at risk from a mental health standpoint isn’t going on a show that would exacerbate that. “If you screen people, obviously taking on someone who is currently actively having a mental health problem — like depression or generalized anxiety disorder — isn’t good,” Dr. Saltz says. “But think of people who are super sensitive to rejection, and sensitive to shame or humiliation. This is a person who would do particularly poorly in such a setting. Rejection sensitivity can occur with different personalities that don’t have overt mental health problems.”
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Fran Walfish, Psy.D., a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist who treats celebrities and their families, agrees that screening is crucial — and she says it could extend into the application process. “Part of what makes great entertainment is conflict, distress, trouble, and the unexpected,” she says. “All of these things require a sturdiness in mental health… I think more careful psychological screening could be done in the application process as well.”
While regulations and guidelines are an important matter to consider, there’s also a larger question to ask ourselves about reality TV: Why do we love shows that thrust strangers into drama and chaos? Susan Biali Haas, M.D. a doctor who focuses on mental health, says there’s “a perverse deliciousness” akin to gossiping, that makes watching human drama compelling to us.
“Vulnerabilities are played upon, and manipulation from producers is used to create good TV,” Dr. Biali Haas says. “And sadly there definitely seems to be quite an appetite for that, not so different than the colosseum in Roman times.”
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