Reality TV ’s complicated relationship with mental health

Whether you love it, hate it or love to hate it, reality TV is everywhere. With the popularity of shows such as Love Island at an all-time high, the conversation around reality TV and how it affects the mental health of both viewers and participants is heating up.

reality TV and mental health

Love Island returned to our screens for its fifth season this summer and sent the British public into a frenzy. While it’s been smashing rating records – hitting the six million viewers mark for the first time – it’s also been dominating headlines (and Twitter feeds) for its portrayal of destructive relationships and lack of participant aftercare.

Reality TV has always had a complicated relationship with mental health. There is no shortage of studies dissecting the ways in which watching reality TV shows affect avid viewers, and while the majority focus on the harmful effects they can have, it’s important to remember that it’s not all bad.

One study asked girls aged 11-17 about their viewing habits, and the results suggested that watching some reality TV shows could be associated with an increase in the level of respect girls expect in romantic relationships.

Love Island - hero image

If you’ve been following this year’s Love Island, and the Twitter commentary attached to it, this most likely won’t surprise you. It’s a lot easier to identify toxic behaviour, particularly in romantic relationships, when you’re personally detached from the situation. Watching the relationships unfold on the screen, prompting you to scream something along the lines of “don’t take him back!” or “how dare he speak to her like that” at the TV can actually be crucial in enabling you to recognise the same behaviours in your personal life.

This has been particularly evident this year, as viewers made over 300 complaints to Ofcom over islander Joe Garratt’s treatment of Lucie Donlan, which they labelled ‘controlling.’ It got so bad in fact, that Women’s Aid released a statement condemning Joe’s behaviour, and said:

“Love Island viewers are now very vocal in calling out unhealthy behaviour between couples on the show, and this is a positive development.”

mental health and reality TV

Love Island 2019 contestant Lucie cries. Credit: ITV Hub

Other than teaching the public some hard truths about relationship dynamics, Love Island – and similar shows – serve a much more lighthearted purpose.

At a time when the 24-hour news cycle is chock full of worrying and upsetting stories of violence and political disarray, we desperately crave a little bit of escapism. For many, there is no better way of escaping our own realities than watching other people live out their (often more glamorous and exciting) lives on TV.

Love Island characters

Love Island 2019 glitter party. Credit: ITV Hub 

But, we have to remember that the people on our screens – and their feelings, personalities and physical attributes – are real, and this is where reality TV’s troubles really lie.

Love Island was plagued with controversy after the suicides of two former islanders.

In 2018, two years after appearing on the second season of Love Island, the world was hit with the news that Sophie Gradon had taken her own life. This was followed by the tragic suicide of former islander Mike Thalassitis, who took part in season three of the hit show, in March 2019.

This raised questions surrounding the show’s aftercare, querying whether Love Island producers were doing enough to help ease contestants back into the real world afterlife in the villa, given that they would inevitably be subjected to fame and the harsh realities that come with it.

Pre-season five, in response to Thalassitis’ death, Love Island producers reviewed support procedures, and put a primary focus on helping contestants deal with their social media fame upon leaving the show – as well as ensuring constant psychological support is on hand during their time in the villa.

Ex-islanders and other social media users were also doing their part, sharing an image entitled ‘how to enjoy Love Island’ that prompted viewers to be cautious and ‘think before [they] type.’

how to watch love island

Amy Hart, who opted to leave the villa this series after suffering heartbreak at the hands of Curtis Pritchard, praised Love Island producers, saying on Love Island Aftersun:

“I cannot stress how much I was supported from all the production team and also my fellow islanders. Although it is amazing to go back home, I can’t think of a better place to go through my first heartbreak than there.”

While no one is forced to give up their lives to reality TV, and support measures are seemingly improving, the very question of whether or not we should be relishing in – and prompting – the drama and heartbreak that real people endure for the sake of entertainment still remain.

Love Island 2019

What do you think? Do you believe reality TV can positively impact the mental health of viewers? Are the possible negative impacts on participants too severe?


Text: Jo Bentham

Images: Heart Radio, Chronicle Live, ITV Hub, Twitter

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2019 Irina Gorskaia

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