Salacious behavior, twists that push the human psyche to the extreme, and pressure-cooker production schedules are just some situations for which reality-show contestants may be signing on. Add in the increasing role of social media and audience tendencies to see contestants as characters, and providing proper mental-health support becomes more important than ever.
Before Melissa Barrera broke through with American audiences as one of the leads on Starz’s “Vida,” she made her television debut in the 2011 Mexican reality show “La Academia.” At 21 years old, she says she loved the experience, but admits it nearly broke her.
“Reality TV is like a snake pit,” she says. “You think the entertainment industry can be hard, but reality TV? That’s the epitome of whether you’re ready for this or not. If I could survive that show, it meant I could do anything. I wouldn’t change anything, but it was people constantly criticizing you for you — not even for a character you’re playing. It’s for your personality and who you are. That can be hard for a 21-year-old.”
Barrera notes that she wanted to quit more than once, but fellow contestant Paco Zazueta, whom she eventually married, encouraged her to keep going.
“We would take turns telling each other we had what it takes to stick it out,” she says. “When I left that show I didn’t want to sing ever again. They made me believe I was no good at it. It was a weird technique they used.”
While Barrera was able to overcome the mental toll her reality experience took on her, some contestants haven’t fared as well. On the heels of making its American franchise debut on CBS this summer, ITV’s “Love Island” has faced backlash for its lack of mental-health support following the suicides of former contestants Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis.
These are far from isolated incidents. Nearly 40 stars from a variety of reality programs, from “Kitchen Nightmares” and “The Bachelor” to “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” and “American Idol” have been found dead by suicide or overdose around the world, prompting a larger conversation surrounding the mental effects of appearing on such series and whether production needs to offer more pre-show screening and post-show support.
“Everyone is really dying to be seen, and for some people, the way they imagine they will fulfill that ultimate experience of being seen is by being on television, by being the center of an entertaining, all-eyes-on-you experience,” says clinical psychologist Brie Rosenfield. She has consulted on a number of unscripted series across network and cable for the past three years, and specifically works with contestants following their time on such series.
“Being seen is very different in your own personal life than it is on reality television. It can trigger a lot of the areas where we may not have a tremendous amount of resiliency and where, if there is a pre-existing condition in the face of that level of stress and discomfort, some people will not be able to move through.”
Since the early days of reality television, producers and therapists have used emotional intelligence testing to cast contestants based on a variety of factors that play into the personalities they’re looking for on any particular series.
Clinical psychologist Steven Stein has developed a series of scientifically validated assessments used to pre-screen during casting on dozens of North American reality series over the years, including “Survivor,” “The Apprentice,” “Big Brother Canada” and “Scare Tactics.”
“We usually tailor the tests to the show in terms of what they’re looking for. Some shows like ‘Big Brother’ rely a lot on social and interpersonal skills. Other shows sometimes require stamina and managing stress, and so we focus on those areas,” he says, noting the system is now mostly automated to keep up with the speed of production.
But, he adds, “The first and most important thing we always do is a mental-health screening because we want to make sure that it’s safe. That the person is not going to be self-injurious or aggressive. That there are no real addiction problems. No sort of borderline personalities.”
Stein says emotional intelligence is used to determine how potential contestants may interact with one another while on the series, to the point where he can often predict a winner before the season even begins. His team was correct in gauging the likelihood of this year’s unanimous “Big Brother Canada” winner, Dane Rupert, who notably dedicated his win to mental health following his own father’s suicide.
Overall, Stein says perhaps less than 5% of the contestants they evaluate don’t make it through to actual production, because they’ve been pre-screened by casting and other departments. Once production kicks off, he’s on-call for any additional support that may be needed, and helps to prepare contestants for the upcoming downtime or how they may be perceived by others while on the series.
When it comes to twists or particular production issues that could affect a contestant’s mental health however, he’s rarely consulted.
According to “The Challenge” executive producer Justin Booth, contestants’ phobias can sometimes make for better television, but the timing of the casting process and the creation of the games on his series mean that it’s hard to specifically take those phobias into consideration.
“It can be noted, but sometimes when we develop these games the casting process goes on simultaneously,” he says. “We might consider, ‘Well, we do have a lot of games that are up in the air, and I know for a fact that Cara Maria might lose her mind.’ And she might get special consideration to get an invite because of it. There might be a little manipulation, but not overtly.”
“You really have no choice but to support these contestants so you don’t have a tragedy.”
Whatever the mental toll contestants face while on a series, the real work begins once the cameras have shut off and they prepare to re-enter their former lives — all while facing the pressures of social media, public critique and newfound fame.
Rosenfield says the productions she works with often offer up to three follow-up sessions, but after that, contestants are on their own to seek help.
“Unfortunately we are paying for the mistakes of our past and in order to be legally and financially responsible, you really have no choice but to support these contestants so that you don’t have a tragedy,” she says.
When it comes to unforeseen outcomes and legal issues involving former reality-show contestants, Stein theorizes it’s a matter of numbers — with more contestants participating on a growing number of reality shows, the likelihood of someone being unable to cope with these issues following production increases. He maintains that’s why it’s important to offer mental-health support for all contestants across the board.
“The shows I’ve worked with do invest in me, or someone like me, to ensure mental health is protected. I find the producers I work with are really cautious and when they sense or when one of the crew senses something is wrong, I get notified right away and we intervene.”
He adds that diverse casting on series including “Big Brother Canada” has sparked conversation on a variety of additional issues such as Tourette’s, ADHD, bullying and gender identity.
“That should be the way it works for almost all of these shows. Whenever you’re taking average or normal people out of the population and putting them in this current environment, at some level there should be a psychologist involved. Just like you have usually a medical person around, for those kinds of issues, there should be someone looking into mental health. Because stuff does happen.”
Danielle Turchiano contributed to this report.