“You wouldn’t wish those kind of feelings on your worst enemy… It got bad, it got horrible, I was in a proper dark place.”
Three months after coming third on last year’s series of Love Island, contestant Chris Hughes opened up about his anxiety, which he had experienced since the age of 19.
Hughes had previously written about his anxiety and panic attacks in an Instagram post on World Mental Health Day in 2016, and appeared to struggle with his emotions when starring on the reality show a year later. (Viewers defended him online when he was told not to “cry again” by his love interest on the programme.)
Since then, he has teamed up with Topman to raise awareness about men’s mental health, and said he still has to focus on coping with the condition.
“About a week ago I was just laying in bed, I know how to cope with it now a lot better than I did, and my breathing went a bit funny and I did get a little anxiety,” he told the Sun last October.
Hughes is not alone.
“I didn’t know what I was suffering, I would hide away and it got worse and worse,” he told Heat magazine in May. “It felt like I was locked in a prison but that was all I could do.”
Jamie Jewitt, the runner-up last year, has also revealed his past struggles with his mental health – crediting the digital detox required on the show for helping tackle his depression.
Having been “very depressed” before joining the show – and even “very unsure about going in there” – Jewitt felt he benefited from human bonding, without access to social media and other distractions.
“You have billions of people at the touch of a button to judge yourself against,” the former model told HuffPo last October. “You look on Instagram, and you see a pumped-up version, or rose-tinted version of someone’s life.”
Series two contestant Alex Bowen has also spoken about suffering from anxiety – and taking medication to treat it – since appearing on the show in 2016. He revealed he couldn’t even walk into a nightclub he felt so sick with anxiety.
“Over the past year, I’ve been out and about and I feel sick, my anxiety starts to come on and I’ll be nervous,” he told OK! last October. “It’s a horrible situation… It’s so weird because I’m not a nervous person and I am not unconfident. I’ve done a lot of things but I do get nervous. It’s a weird transition for me.”
This year, there has been speculation about the sudden departure of Niall Aslam from the island. Love Island cited “personal reasons” – and unspecified “health reasons” have also been reported, with quotes from sources about his “stress”, “over-worrying” and ITV2 fulfilling its “duty of care”.
Of course, we don’t know the specific reasons for Aslam quitting the show, but why has Love Island had so many contestants discussing their mental health problems recently?
Stars of stage and screenings
On most UK reality TV programmes, from The Great British Bake Off to The Apprentice, potential participants will have a psychological assessment before they are recruited.
They will then have a welfare officer or care team on hand if they need help – or feel ill – during filming. Love Island is no different.
The assessor will go through the individual’s health records, and have a chat with them to assess their mental wellbeing – and give them a sense of what they can expect on the programme.
If they have been recently admitted to a psychiatric unit, this is usually the “cut-off” – according to psychotherapist Lynn Greenwood, who has been doing psychological assessments for high-profile reality TV programmes in Britain for 15 years. (For confidentiality reasons, I cannot name the specific programmes.)
“What I’m really looking for is any diagnosis, or any sign from what I pick up – because it might be undiagnosed – of vulnerability, of psychological difficulties, contact with mental health services, those type of things,” says Greenwood, who had been working for the NHS and private hospitals for five years before she started her television work.
“What’s their manner? Is there anything that comes across that I need to take into account? Have there been any traumatic events?” she asks.
“You get the feeling if there’s a congruence between what they’re telling you and what you’re seeing in front of you,” she says. “Are they so vulnerable that the process is going to be detrimental to them?”
Greenwood gives an example of a recent contestant who had suffered from OCD after witnessing a death. The producers were worried, but she judged that, as he’d been having treatment and was now coming off his medication, he’d be fine for the specific programme he’d applied to – although it always depends on the show.
Representation will be televised
While Greenwood knows most applicants see psychological assessments as a “hurdle”, she emphasises the importance of providing a “duty of care” – describing recruitment as a “negotiation” with producers.
“There’s always this tension between ‘we really want this person, they’re going to be great’, and ‘they’re too vulnerable’,” she says. “There’s a negotiation about how to make sure people’s wellbeing is respected.”
Another balance to strike is representing society’s diversity with the need to protect participants. Including people with stories to tell about their mental health on reality TV can be positive for raising awareness and providing role models for young people.
For example, mental health campaigners were critical in 2010 of X Factor’s decision to drop Shirlena Johnson from the show due to mental health reasons. “Mental illness should not automatically mean she is incapable of taking part in the X Factor,” said mental health campaign Time To Change director Sue Baker at the time.
“We need a range of role models,” the Mental Health Foundation’s Chris O’Sullivan tells me. “And actually, if we see people who are apparently pursuing fame and all the rest of it being fragile and upset as well, then maybe that balances some of that idea of selfie culture and presenting only a certain face to the world.”
O’Sullivan finds that participants on programmes like Love Island and Big Brother often tend to want success or fame to “be validated for something” – “often that comes from feelings of insecurity or challenge, or experiences of having been bullied,” he says.
“People have personal stories to tell, which involves difficult themes and being challenged, then TV is interested, because it’s interesting and people want to watch that.”
He warns producers on such shows to think hard about the “editorial versus welfare” balance. “Editorially, you want people to say and do all sorts of things,” he says, particularly when “putting people together in an artificially constructed, highly stressful environment”.
“The main thing that affects people psychologically is that you go from nothing really quickly to something,” says Joe Conaboy, 24, who experienced depression and anxiety after appearing on X Factor in the five-piece band, Kingsland Road in 2013. He was 19 at the time.
“It’s a very young age for people to be exposed to that kind of thing. There’s no security. You’re promised almost everything, you’re shown that world,” he says of reality TV in general. “There are a lot of techniques to heighten emotion… Feelings are magnified, you don’t get a lot of rest, and you don’t have time to sit and think about things – it’s very emotionally-drive, it is hardcore, it’s kinda cut-throat too.”
His band came ninth in the show, having been competing for four weeks. As with many reality TV shows, most of this time was spent laying low in a house, where contestants are kept away to avoid spoilers for the viewing public.
“You go from being normal to being whisked away into this house where paparazzi are waiting outside the doors for 24 hours,” Conaboy tells me. “Then on the day you leave, that’s it, you’re done, there was a taxi waiting outside, we were gone – it’s brutal.”
Although there was a welfare officer available on the show, Conaboy says he didn’t feel like he needed it at the time, because he was on such a high. Yet he recalls searching his band’s name on Twitter while he was on the show, and finding “trolls and trolls of abuse”.
“Everything’s magnified so much more when you’re on television, and if I had to give advice – it’s just remember these people are human,” he says. “Two months ago, these people were normal people sitting on their sofa, watching the same thing.”
The show finished in December that year, and after Christmas, Conaboy began feeling depressed and anxious, and was prescribed anti-depressants.
“I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, I couldn’t do anything,” he tells me. “I was in a bad way. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t keep anything down, I was being sick. My anxiety was so bad.”
He recalls one night sitting on the window ledge in his flat in tears, calling his best friend and contemplating suicide. “I didn’t know what to do.”
Conaboy had not experienced mental health problems before the show, and though he doesn’t attribute his symptoms to any one factor, he still suffers from anxiety and depression – and finds it impossible to watch programmes like X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and The Voice to this day.
“I actually shut it out of my life – I can’t watch it, I can’t hear anything about it, it gives me severe anxiety if I do,” he says.
He now works as a waiter full-time, finding it “one of the hardest experiences of my life” to return to work after Kingsland Road disbanded. Having suffered panic attacks at first when at work, he is now accustomed to life after reality TV.
Appearing on high-profile reality TV shows can be great for your profile – but terrible for your own image of yourself. With social media comes a barrage of abuse, particularly aimed at contestants’ looks on shows that rely a lot on image.
“Sometimes you can find yourself under the spotlight in a way you find difficult, or you might look at yourself on TV – and again, this is something I try to assess for – and be shocked by what you see,” says Greenwood, revealing that she warns applicants who are overweight what kind of audience response to expect.
“[I try] to gauge from how they come across whether in fact they’re not really robust enough to take criticism and poison from social media,” she says. “Everyone says ‘oh, I wouldn’t look at any nasty comments’, and they all do.”
Bearing all on television can bring on feelings of low self-esteem. Indeed, before Aslam left Love Island, he had spoken about having his ears pinned back last year, claiming he didn’t get attention from the opposite sex until he had the surgery done.
“It’s worrying that people have to feel that they have to look good because otherwise they’re going to get reamed in the press or they’re going to get reamed online,” says Conaboy, who remembers feeling disconcerted about seeing pictures of himself in the papers. “It’s not a nice feeling. You should just look how you want to look.”
Yet from all the people I speak to for this piece, there is a consensus that the growing number of young, popular mental health advocates is no bad thing for reality TV audiences. As long as we remember that they are human too, not just characters for us to watch.
“Don’t forget when it is a real person, it is a real person,” says O’Sullivan. “We shouldn’t pursue editorially people who make great TV, at unfair cost to them or at cost that they’re not able to appreciate either at the time or afterwards.”
If you’ve been affected by the issues mentioned in this piece you can call the Samaritans on the free helpline 116 123 in the UK; in the US you can call the Suicide Prevention Hotline on 1-800-273-8255