UPDATE (March 10, 2020, 10: 30 p.m. ET): This piece has been updated to reflect “Bachelor” Peter Weber’s decision to choose Madison after a protracted and teary finale.
Psychology and reality TV have always been intertwined — even if viewers don’t realize it. As a psychologist, I’ve worked in reality TV since the early days, both on and off screen, starting with helping to provide rudimentary psych evaluations for U.K. “Big Brother” contestants and would-be contestants nearly 20 years ago.
In the ensuing decades, reality TV has become a phenomenon. It’s now a huge genre that includes everything from the gentle, talent-based drama of “The Great British Baking Show” to cutthroat survival shows and dating shows. Case in point, Tuesday night marks the end of a two-night finale for the 24th season of ABC’s “Bachelor,” a show that has experienced romance and controversy in seemingly equal measure.
Psychology and reality TV has always been intertwined — even if viewers don’t realize it. As a psychologist, I’ve worked in reality TV since the early days.
“The Bachelor” and its spin-offs are a cultural behemoth, but the franchise has been marred by several deaths over the years, including the suicides of Julien Hug in 2010 and Gia Allemand in 2013. More recently, the overdose of former “Bachelorette” contestant Tyler Gwozdz in January and a series of concerning stories about former “Bachelorette” contestant Chad Johnson’s mental health have many questioning what types of assistance are available to former contestants.
Indeed, Peter Weber’s dramatic and surely controversial choice of Madison over Hannah Ann this week will set off a riotous social media debate, the culmination of weeks of pressure that the cast has been subjected to as their pros and cons are picked apart publicly.
The longevity of “The Batchelor” has spawned an enormous cottage industry of other dating shows, with Netflix’s “Love Is Blind” the latest to capture the public’s imagination. Clearly, appetite for this type of TV shows no sign of decreasing. And with production companies chasing an ever-diversified audience, pushing boundaries has become par for the course — as does the stress of participants.
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I do a whole raft of customized tests for production companies and TV channels before people are allowed to take part in a show. However, a lot of these tests rely on personal disclosure from highly motivated contestants. Even with background and medical checks, it’s sometimes difficult to know if somebody is telling the whole truth about their mental health history.
For the people who do get past all the written psych assessment tests, they enter a bizarre bubble in which they are shielded from reality by producers, support staff and by the other contestants, all of whom are sharing a similar and rather unreal experience. Hopefully, support systems are in place to help people while they are in bubble. The real problem, then, is what happens once they leave. They went into the show as an ordinary member of the public, and they come out as someone the whole country is talking about.
Before each individual takes part in a reality TV show, I give them what I call the “talk of doom,” which is a transparent and candid description of what they are likely to encounter. I try to convince them not to engage with social media trolls, but fame is seductive.
There is no doubt that trolling erodes self-esteem and increases anxiety. This underlines the importance of proper aftercare — a relatively new concept in TV. Because that momentary taste of intense fame can be a very addictive thing. But with intense fame comes intense scrutiny. The other issue is that for most contestants or participants in reality TV shows, there will be no further fame after the show ends. So, being robust, resilient and realistic is crucial in the first instance.
In my experience those people who have a Plan B for life after the show — especially a plan that doesn’t bank on being famous — are the ones who succeed the best. In other words, those who see it as an inclusive journey — an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with a beginning, a middle and an end, rather than the start of some other sort of journey.
In my experience those people that have a Plan B for life after the show are the ones who succeed.
In the U.K., we had two former contestants on the hugely popular “Love Island” die by suicide in the last year or so, a guest on the Jeremy Kyle Show is suspected of dying by suicide, and more recently, Caroline Flack, the original host of “Love Island” also died by suicide. As it currently stands there are things the TV industry can do, but these recommendations are fairly muddled and there is no obligation for any channel or production company to follow them. Additionally, what these recommendations don’t take into account is the experience of psychologists who have been working in the media for a very long time.
In 2019, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee of the U.K. government launched a reality TV inquiry to consider whether production companies were effectively and fairly taking care of their participants. In association with Ofcom, the body that regulates what we see on TV, this could have resulted in actual regulations — at least in the U.K. — that would have forced companies to take responsibility for the mental health outcomes of their shows. Unfortunately, due to Parliament dissolving in late 2019, the committee closed the inquiry, and it hasn’t restarted and no new date in sight.
So now we are still in a situation where it is very much up to individual production companies and TV channels to provide support for reality TV participants. Many production companies still fear that someone like me will possibly reject the most charismatic contestants. As a specialist in media psychology, I recognize that there is an occasional conflict of interest, but I am also highly aware of the need for entertainment.
So some production companies take their responsibility seriously and will employ mental health experts more or less from the initial casting stage of a series through the series finale and beyond.
However, with budgets being as tight as ever in the TV industry, other companies only provide care when a contestant expresses some concern. This is a really tricky situation for anyone, including a psychologist. It’s much easier to take preventative measures for mental health and welfare than it is to patch it up after the problems have kicked in. In worst case scenarios, no help is asked for or provided, an outcome that we know can have tragic consequences.