How Reality TV Became the Most Life-Threatening Genre in the World

TV fights were popularized on 'Jerry Springer,' but the mental health concerns for those who appear on reality TV are now far more complicated than what happens on-screen. ('The Jerry Springer Show'/ NBC)

Former American Idol and Fear Factor contestant, Antonella Barba, was sentenced to three years and nine months in prison this week after being caught with nearly two pounds of fentanyl. During the trial, her attorney stated that: "The American Idol experience brought about a detrimental change in Ms. Barba’s life."

It may not have altered the outcome of her trial, but there is ample evidence to suggest that participating in reality TV competitions can be terrible for your health. Substance abuse has proven to be a recurring issue. Survivor China winner Todd Herzog reportedly didn't drink before the show, but has since battled alcoholism; Big Brother winner Adam Jasinski developed an addiction and was caught attempting to sell oxycodone; and Storage Wars' Mark Balelo killed himself two days after being arrested for meth possession.

From America's Next Top Model alone, Jael Strauss developed a major meth habit; Lisa D'Amato ended up on Celebrity Rehab thanks to amphetamines, cocaine, mushrooms and alcohol dependency; and Renee Alway, six years after her elimination, landed herself a 12-year prison sentence for multiple burglaries, car thefts and weapons charges stemming from a heroin addiction. Alway says that after the show, "It was just closed door after closed door... I couldn't get past the reality TV stigma that had been put on me... and then there's the pressure of the fans. 'Where are you?' 'What happened?' It's almost like a setup for failure.”

Reality TV is now such a ubiquitous genre, it's easy to forget that, especially for regular people with zero media training, the whirlwind of having one's life put under a microscope and dissected on social media can be far more than anxiety-inducing—it can be literally life-endangering. The list of post-reality TV suicides is sobering, to say the least.

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Two Season 14 Bachelor contestants, Alexa McAllister and Gia Allemand, committed suicide after the show, as did Julien Hug who appeared on The Bachelorette in 2009. Kitchen Nightmares’ Joseph Cerniglia jumped off a bridge, while Hell's Kitchen contestant Rachel Brown and MasterChef’s Joshua Marks shot themselves. The Voice’s Anthony Riley and X Factor contestant Simone Battle both hanged themselves. Paula Goodspeed took an overdose in front of Paula Abdul's house after being rejected from American Idol. And before Real Housewives of Beverly HillsRussell Armstrong killed himself in 2011, he said that being on TV "took our manageable problems and made them worse.”

In the UK, Love Island contestants have been the subject of much concern, after two, Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon, took their own lives. Gradon's boyfriend Aaron Armstrong followed suit less than three weeks after she died. And he's not the only spouse to have suffered—after appearing on Megan Wants A Millionaire, Ryan Jenkins murdered his girlfriend, Jasmine Fiore, then hanged himself.

Serious issues were established decades ago around the well-being of individuals who appear on reality TV. In 1995, 32-year-old Scott Amedure was murdered after sharing fantasies about his friend Jonathan Schmitz on The Jenny Jones Show. Schmitz had been told that he was there to meet a secret admirer, whom he had assumed would be a woman. Three days after the friends appeared on the show, Schmitz killed Amedure with a shotgun.

Five years later, Nancy Campbell-Panitz was beaten to death by her ex-husband, Ralf Panitz, after the pair appeared in a Jerry Springer episode titled "Secret Mistresses Confronted." Panitz was convicted of second degree murder. That same year, the talk show Forgive Or Forget, hosted by Robin Givens, featured a 17-year-old named Charlene Burkey, who was pregnant with her third child. Her boyfriend Larry Kieper appeared alongside her, skipping out on a court date related to weapons possession charges to do so. The night before the show aired, Burkey was shot twice in the head. Two friends of Kieper's were arrested and charged with her murder.

Both the families of Amedure and Campbell-Panitz sued the TV networks responsible for Jones and Springer. But after a Court of Appeals verdict overturned a $30 million dollar award to Scott Amedure's family, stating that TV shows have no legal duty to protect their guests, Campbell-Panitz's son dropped his lawsuit. Both shows continued for many years, and the controversial format was adopted by other countries around the world.

Just this year, in May, a 63-year-old man named Steve Dymond took his own life a week after appearing on Britain's premier tabloid talk show. During his appearance on The Jeremy Kyle Show (somewhere in tone between Jerry Springer and Dr. Phil), Dymond had been given a polygraph test that concluded that he had been unfaithful to his fiancé. She promptly broke up with him. During the highly-publicized inquest into his death, it was revealed that two hours before being sent home from the studio, Dymond told a researcher for the show that he wished he was dead.

In response to the furor following Dymond's death, Carla Wright, an ex-TV researcher on The Trisha Goddard Show—which ran from 1998 to 2009 in the UK, and between 2012 and 2014 in the US—admitted in The Guardian that little regard was given to the welfare of the guests on these kinds of shows. "We pounced on them, with their lives in crisis," she wrote, "and told them this was a chance to make positive change... For compliance, we would do a mental health check asking about medication, diagnosis and suicide attempts. Depression and anxiety were okay, as far as we were concerned."

One Love Island contestant, Dom Lever, confirmed on Twitter after his time on the show that, "You get a psychological evaluation before and after you go on the show, but hands down, once you are done on the show, you don’t get any support unless you’re number one."

As the public chews up and spits out contestant after contestant on a neverending assembly line of shows, it's increasingly apparent that not enough is being done to safeguard the health and safety of those participating. These shows have always been guilty pleasures for most of us. But what happens when the guilt starts to outweigh the pleasure?

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If the networks expect us to keep tuning in, they need to do far more to protect the people that appear on them. Frankly, that should have started decades ago.

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