The recent cancellation of the Jeremy Kyle show felt like a watershed moment for attitudes towards mental wellbeing.
For years, programmes like this have turned the problems of ordinary people into entertainment. Participants walk in off the street, often without fully appreciating the extent to which they are about to be catapulted into the public eye. After being broadcast to the nation, their innermost feelings and fears become public property. They’re scrutinized throughout the media, turned into memes on Instagram, and have their likability debated in office chat up and down the country.
In the space of a couple of weeks, entire lives can be turned upside down. Inevitably, this can be incredibly disorientating for participants, regardless of whether they have an existing mental health problem or not.
But while the testimony of former contestants makes it clear that reality TV appearances can negatively impact mental wellbeing, historically what’s been less clear is how these individuals have been supported before, during and after their time on these shows.
That’s why today’s inquiry by the Department of Media, Culture and Sport into reality TV is absolutely essential.
Of course every production team is aiming to entertain, but by creating formalised duty of care and safeguarding policies they can start to ensure that reality show ratings are never prioritised over the welfare of their contestants.
These participants are more than just fodder for social media, they’re real people who are likely to have entered into these shows with their own set of vulnerabilities – and should be looked after accordingly. When it comes to best practice, there are a number of steps that broadcasters and production companies can and should be taking.
At the very least, they should be having upfront, formal discussions regarding mental health which signpost to appropriate forms of support. But ideally production companies and broadcasters should be going further by providing dedicated, specialist support before, during and after filming.
Where possible they should consider providing a counselling service, which can offer bespoke support to participants for any issues that arise as a result of their TV appearance. Several of these measures have been announced in ITV’s recently published duty of care process. This is hugely encouraging and we look forward to seeing how they will go on to support future reality TV participants.
While there is a role for Ofcom, as the broadcasting regulator, to ensure that duty of care policies are being applied effectively, programme makers and broadcasters can lead the way and show their commitment by taking responsibility for duty of care policies.
Exactly what this looks like needs further exploration, but a key part of designing support should involve engaging former participants to understand the impact reality TV has had on their lives and asking for their views on the support needed to deal with this.
My charity, Mind, exists to make sure that the one in four of us experiencing a mental health problem gets support and respect. Our Media Advisory Service supports broadcasters to represent mental health-related issues sensitively and realistically on screen. Through this service we can also help broadcasters to properly support people in sharing their experience of living with mental health problems.
Reality TV is arguably behind the rest of society in terms of understanding the importance of mental health. We hope today’s inquiry will be a wake-up call for the industry, which will lead to broadcasters making the welfare of participants their top priority.
People who have had mental health problems have as much right as anyone else to take part in entertainment and reality TV and should not be prevented from doing so purely on the basis of their condition. But until proper duty of care policies are put in place, broadcasters must ask themselves whether some formats of reality TV can ever be made sufficiently safe – especially those that put people under undue pressure, purely for the sake of entertainment.
Graham Evans is Head of Media at mental health charity Mind
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