Counsellors lodge complaint with TV watchdog over reality show that may become a waking nightmare

Click to follow
The Independent Online

When Clare Southern got her hands on £97,000 last Saturday night for merely staying awake, television viewers might have been forgiven for thinking she had been given rather a lot for doing rather little.

Last night, however, the professional body representing 20,000 psychotherapists and counsellors across Britain suggested that the teenage trainee police officer and her fellow contestants in the reality TV show Shattered may have paid too high a price.

The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) accused the programme makers Endemol UK, makers of reality show Big Brother, and Channel 4 of risking the mental health of the show's 10 contestants by depriving them of sleep.

The association has outlined its concerns in a formal complaint to the media watchdog Ofcom in the hope that similar shows are never made again.

Phillip Hodson, a spokesman for the BACP, said: "We are concerned that this programme is likely to have put participants at risk of a threat to their mental health."

Mr Hodson said the makers of Shattered had asked the BACP to participate. The association responded in an e-mail: "We are going to say no because we don't think it is even ethical to make the programme. Cumulative sleep deprivation is harmful to health."

Mr Hodson, who said sleep deprivation could "trigger epilepsy in predisposed individuals", questioned whether the show's participants would be able to make "informed decisions" about their health after being awake for several days.

He said: "What are these programmes going to do next? Is it a hunger strike ... where's it going to stop? It used to be one of the biggest draws in London to go to Tyburn Tree ... to watch the hangings."

The BACP's complaint follows concerns over the psychological effects on cont- estants in other reality television shows, including ITV's "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!" and Channel 4's Big Brother.

Daniella Westbrook suffered a near-breakdown on the jungle-based ITV show, and viewers were disturbed by the sight of comedian Les Dennis sobbing in front of the cameras in Celebrity Big Brother.

Mr Hodson said: "If it was medical research there would be very strict protocols, but nobody thinks about the health of reality TV contestants, who themselves desperately want to win £100,000 and be on television." He cited the case of the New York DJ Peter Tripp who staged a 201-hour on-air "Wake-a-thon" in 1959, during which he had hallucinations.

The BACP said that after the Wake-a-thon some of Tripp's friends believed he changed for the worse and linked it to his subsequent breakdown.

Mr Hodson said sleep deprivation was linked to depression and that the makers of Shattered could not be sure that participants would not suffer mental health problems.

Ms Southern, 19, was declared the victor after being deprived of sleep for 178 hours. She and her fellow contestants were allowed an average of two hours sleep every 24 hours.

After winning she hugged Dermot O'Leary, the show's presenter, and revealed the secrets of her success. "I was singing to myself and started playing blinking games with my eyes. Will Young's 'Light My Fire' kept coming in my head ... I owe him one," she said. "I just tried to conserve my energy and if I had any lows to dig myself out of them as quickly as possible."

Shattered began with 10 contestants competing to stay awake inside what the programme described as a "laboratory" (a television studio in Wapping, east London).

Each night, the worst-performing contestant was voted off the show. The participants lost £1,000 from the £100,000 jackpot whenever one of them fell asleep for more than 10 seconds, increasing the pressure on participants to keep awake.

As the show progressed, several members of the group complained of hallucinations, exhaustion and paranoia.

At one point a contestant - a part-time waiter from London - began claiming that he was the prime minister of Australia. Then a former soldier from Brighton became angry when his fellow participants refused to put on feudal Japanese armour.

The BACP's complaint is one of 27 that Ofcom is considering in relation to the programme. The makers of the programme expressed surprise at the concerns of the psychotherapists and said every precaution had been taken.

Throughout the week, the participants were monitored by an "ethics panel", which included a psychiatrist, a doctor and scientists involved in research into sleep loss.

Gareth Smith, a consultant psychiatrist at Southern General Hospital in Glasgow, said his priority was the well-being of the participants and that he was "not a stooge of Endemol or Channel 4".

He said: "I wouldn't do anything that would put my career at risk for the sake of appearing on TV with Dermot O'Leary for 30 minutes." Dr Smith said he had concerns about the part-time waiter when he displayed signs of "sleep drunkenness". But he said all the participants had fully recovered from their experience. "After they had one night's sleep they were fine," he said. "They were tired but all the psychiatric symptoms had gone away."

On the advice of the programme's medical advisers, the contestants were woken at 10am the day after the show ended. They were instructed not to drive a vehicle for two days and told that they might experience some vivid dreams as their bodies re-adjusted to normal sleep patterns.

Dr Smith said the concerns of the BACP were "nonsense". He said: "I don't know what they are going on about to be honest. I would like to see where they got their evidence." The psychiatrist was joined on the Shattered ethics panel by Trish McNair, a doctor, Neil Stanley, a scientist who is the chairman of the British Sleep Society, which is linked to the University of Surrey, and Professor Jim Horne of the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough University. Despite the fact that the show featured sleepy contestants - quite literally - watching paint dry, an average of two million viewers tuned in to the programme each evening. Channel 4 presented the show as something of a scientific experiment. But in an official review of the programme on the channel's website it said: "Perhaps the most interesting finding was that libido does not increase with sleep deprivation," it complained.

NO SUCH THING AS AN ORIGINAL STUNT

The legendary New York DJ Peter Tripp was given star coverage in Life magazine when he successfully broadcast a 201-hour charity "Wake-a-thon" on his WMGM station in 1959.

Tripp, who pioneered the concept of a Top 40 singles chart, was attended throughout his ordeal by a team of medical professionals.

But he endured some alarming experiences including hallucinations in which he imagined spiders in his shoes. At one point he also rummaged through his office drawers looking for money that he imagined to be there.

Tripp became paranoid that his food was being drugged and at one point ran out into the street and was nearly run over. At the end of the Wake-a-thon, Tripp slept for 13 hours.

But according to some of the DJ's friends, he never recovered from the stunt.

He was investigated during the "payola" scandal of DJs being paid to play records (which he always denied). His life fell apart and he ended up penniless before building a career in the fitness industry.

Comments