April 13, 2024

The risk to reality TV participants’ mental health is increasing year on year as broadcasters and producers continue to push boundaries to make more interesting and enticing entertainment. But while psychologists are increasingly called upon to advise on such productions, experts say these aren’t always appropriately qualified and their advice isn’t necessarily followed up.

Television and film companies are increasingly working to safeguard participants’ mental health after allegations of manipulative and coercive treatment, and the suicide of contestants on Love Island, The Jeremy Kyle Show and other reality programmes. They are also under pressure to attract audiences amid growing competition and financial strains.

“I think in any project we need to keep an audience on their toes. And so we have to keep pushing the genres and the boundaries to make more interesting and enticing TV,” said Dr Howie Fine, a consultant clinical psychologist who worked on Channel 4’s The Jury: Murder Trial, which aired last week.

“We’ve got this morbid curiosity, which I think is evidenced in the rise of true crime documentaries and programmes such as The Jury, where we are more and more intrigued by the dark. And if we keep on pushing those boundaries, that means greater and greater risk.”

Fine is one of a growing number of media production psychologists hired to assess participants and develop strategies to boost their resilience and support them throughout the production process.

On high-profile shows with the budget to pay for such support, the risks to participants were being contained better than ever before, said Fine, who has also contributed to SAS Who Dares Wins, The Traitors UK and other shows through his company Mindzone Media.

However, he said it was complex work. “I’d say it is up there with psychosis, eating disorders and self-harm, because you are holding so much potential risk.” But “media psychologist” is not a protected title, unlike Fine’s, meaning anyone can call themselves one.

Dr Howie Fine: ‘If we keep on pushing those boundaries, that means greater and greater risk.’ Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Last week the British Psychological Society (BPS) launched a directory of media production psychologists to make it easier for companies to find the right help. “It is vital that the psychologists that production companies use have the necessary skills, training and registration to ensure the protection of all participants,” said Prof John Oates, the chair of the BPS’s media ethics advisory group.

Some formats present greater challenges than others. The Jury: Murder Trial involved rerunning a trial using actors and filming the jurors’ deliberations to see if they reached the same conclusion as the original jury, with the added twist of a secret second jury also taking part. Not only were participants exposed to graphic testimony and navigating disagreements with fellow jurors, they were also aware of the public scrutiny that was likely to await them post-transmission.

Because of this, the amount of consideration and care that went into the production process was “unprecedented”, Fine said. Yet, even with meticulous consideration and planning, there is an element of unpredictability in any production.

“We can do a relatively good job of talking to participants to get an understanding of how they would react to any scenario within their normal environment. But when you put them in a film studio, a jury environment or a social experiment, you’re taking them out of their norm,” Fine said.

“You need to also consider their motivations: there will be the overt motivations, which they’ll tell you about, but there may also be further motivations, such as looking for public exposure and increasing their social media profile. If that’s their drive, that already skews how they are likely to behave.”

Further complicating matters, on other productions psychologists say they haven’t always been fully briefed on the details of a show, or employed throughout the production process.

Oates said: “Broadcasters and production companies are always looking for new formats, or tweaks on formats, and these tend to involve new challenges that put psychological pressure on contributors.

“If a psychologist is to properly assess whether a contributor is sufficiently resilient to deal with them and not have vulnerabilities that might cause them psychological harm, it is essential they know the details of these challenges. But the way productions often work is that they tend to keep those either very secret, or think them up on the fly.”

Psychologists’ recommendations are not always implemented by production teams. “Without the support at senior level, with a production company taking on board everything [the psychologist] says, it is just a box-ticking exercise,” said Fiona Fletcher, the head of production and welfare at Brighton-based ScreenDog Productions, which creates factual and social experiment programmes including The Jury: Murder Trial.

Dr Matthew Gould, a consultant clinical psychologist and independent adviser to ITV, said: “What we know is that successful duty of care requires working at the contributor, crew and corporate levels. There are many positive initiatives being introduced at those levels but it is essential that all the separate parts are pulled together. Risk is dynamic, therefore we must closely monitor what causes harm and, importantly, identify which safeguards have the greatest positive impact.”

Fletcher said it was not just the most obviously distressing programmes that needed this kind of approach. “Even if you’re in a lighthearted documentary, perhaps about having a house in the country, people should be supported because we’re asking them to tell us about their personal lives, their experiences.

“Some people can handle that really well. Others on the face of it can handle it very well, and then they come out the other side and feel emotionally ruined by it.”

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