Love Island: the power of the TV producers to promote good mental health
Over the past few weeks, I have enjoyed England's World Cup run, sizzled in the London sunshine, and revelled at music festivals. If you know me, none of that is surprising. But what I didn't expect was that at the same time, I'd be hooked by Love Island.
I hadn't watched any of the ITV2 reality show since the original celebrity series in 2005, with its star-strewn cast of such 21st century luminaries as Lee Sharpe, Abi Titmus, Calum Best and Liz McLarnon.
I don't watch much telly, never mind something I'd previously considered trashy and pointless.
But this year I decided to give Love Island a try. Maybe it was to do with colleagues talking about it, seeing people who I respect tweeting about it, or maybe I just needed some easy viewing on summer's evenings.
In the end, as well as being an evening wind-down, it's unexpectedly triggered a few thoughts in the context of my role at the Mental Health Foundation. Now the sun has set on the island, with Jack and Dani as the winners, I've put down some of these thoughts.
There's little doubt that, among a certain age group, Love Island is becoming a great British TV institution, along the lines of The Apprentice or Bake Off (indeed, it had huge viewing figures and a cinema in Londonderry even sold out 440 tickets for the live final in just 45 minutes). But how could it affect the mental health of its viewers and its contestants?
Throughout the series I became more and more aware of the actions of producers and how what they were doing could be significantly harmful.
Yes, it may sound like a spurious claim that reality TV producers can affect the mental health of the nation. But, actually, they can make a contribution.
Our report for Mental Health Awareness Week in May this year, told us that 47% of young people aged 18–24 have felt so stressed by body image and appearance that they have felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. This is even more pronounced in young women.
Love Island selected 38 men and women for the series, who age between 20 and 31, and they're hardly a picture of body diversity. There isn't much in the way of fat rolls, cellulite, chubby bellies or visible disabilities on display.
This can only serve to reinforce the stereotypical 'attractive' person and increase the number of young people whose mental health is affected by body image pressures.
Likewise, the amount of cosmetic surgery undertaken by the contestants before they enter the villa is concerning. Many have spent thousands, if not tens of thousands of pounds 'perfecting' their image. There are fake boobs, Hollywood smiles, nose jobs, lip jobs, fake eyebrows – no body part seems to have escaped treatment.
Our director, Isabella Goldie, wrote to ITV a few weeks ago expressing our concern about strategically placed cosmetic surgery adverts during the show, specifically targeting vulnerable young women.
It was well reported that there were more applications for Love Island this year than there were for either Oxford or Cambridge universities. Martin Belam in the Guardian pointed out that far more people are eligible to appear on Love Island – but with the very small selection of body types, is that really the case in practice?
It's hard to believe that among a reported 85,000 applications, there weren't any people who had a few curves, scars or stretch marks.
Consciously causing distress
But it's not just who is on the show – the content of the show also appears to take no account of mental health. The producers, it seems, are willing to do anything to create drama…
I actually caught five minutes of the Love Island Review Show last Saturday night and they were counting down the most talked about moments of the series on social media.
No doubt these are what the show measures its own success on, but it was noticeable that these moments almost exclusively included some kind of distress – sometimes artificially created by the producers.
Samira, often isolated as the only black woman in the show, was struggling to find the right guy. When she did, she fell for Frankie and apparently spent a night in the 'Hideaway' with him – Love Island's only private bedroom.
This wasn't shown to viewers and they subsequently voted him out and Samira was devastated. If the 'Hideaway' night was shown, the situation might have been different.
On another occasion, the boys went off to spend two nights in another villa, 'Casa Amor'. The producers threw in an ex-fling of Jack's and told his villa partner Dani, who was understandably unhappy.
What they didn't show her was that Jack didn’t go near his ex and slept outside, such was his commitment to Dani.
Then there was the lie detector test, which wasn't carried out in the ideal way, making answers likely to be inaccurate. Again, the result was to create some artificial distress.
Yes, all these examples were dramatic and entertaining, but it showed a disregard for the contestants' wellbeing. We shouldn’t take this lightly – the most serious mental health problems often start as something small, escalating into something more serious.
Indeed, Alex and Alexandra's on-off relationship led to plenty of drama in the villa but it hardly needed the intervention of producers.
The producers could be so much more creative and find ways to create entertainment and drama without artificially interfering. Relationship stress shouldn't be underestimated, as our Mental Health Awareness Week report from 2016 said.
So if all this is so wrong, why did I watch it? Because it was really entertaining… and dare you ask, were there were some good parts to it? Actually, yes.
Although the show fuels the common perception of the perfect body, it does allow some insight that we often don’t see on the Instagram feeds of pop stars and models. It shows that not all is perfect.
Talking about your feelings is one of the best things you can do to look after your mental health and a number of contestants have done this over the past few weeks.
It's particularly refreshing to see young men opening up about their feelings and insecurities as we know this group of people are far less likely to talk about their mental health, which ultimately contributes to suicide being the most common cause of death for men under 45.
We've all felt like Dr Alex who was finding it difficult to find a partner and questioned whether there was something wrong with him, haven't we?
Likewise, it's good to see the contestants at all times of day. We often see the girls with their makeup off and in their pyjamas, and so not espousing that 'perfect' image all of the time – even if they do feel the need to spend ages on their appearance and dress up every night.
Despite these positives, there is a lot of work that the producers can do to acknowledge mental health as being a significant issue, which is especially important considering the target audience.
Granted, my interest is fuelling the actions of the producers (and I did find myself a little worried it would become boring when everyone was 'coupled up'), but it's the producers who are in the positions of power here. They have a popular series, which has the ability to trash some of the stereotypes of 'attractive' people, promote body diversity, and to bring the issue of mental health and relationships to the fore. Here's hoping they take this on board for the 2019 series – if they do, I'll be watching.
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