Gordon Ramsay and Joe Cerniglia in Earlier this month, Nadia Almada was found lying unconscious in her bathroom after an overdose of prescription pills. It was only a week since she'd been kicked off the British version of "Big Brother," a gargantuan hit in the UK.
"I just feel my life isn't worth living any more," Alameda, a Portuguese transsexual, had told the Daily Star two days after her eviction. After her failed suicide attempt days later, producers of the series released a statement saying: "We have been in constant touch with Nadia and like all housemates, she has access to all of our aftercare facilities."
With a spate of reality contestant fatalities in recent years, producers are stepping up damage control.
Last week saw the second suicide of a chef featured on a reality show helmed by the brutally honest, and sometimes just brutal, Gordon Ramsay. After public backlash (including chastising tweets from fellow reality chef Eric Ripert) Ramsey released a statement: "Joe [Cerniglia] was a brilliant chef and our thoughts go out to his family and staff."
Neither Ramsay nor the show's producers can be held fully responsible for the tragedy. But the pattern of violence, most often self-inflicted, across an intersection of reality show contestants, is being called into question. Many mental health experts worry shows are playing with psychological fire.
"If you have a mental health problem like an addiction, some of these shows stir up the issues and bring them to the forefront. When the show ends you're left alone to deal with them, and some people aren't prepared for that," says Dr. Jamie Huysman, founder of Aftercare TV, a counseling program that provides support to reality show contestants after filming ends. "Other times people rely on these shows to generate fame or income, and when they don't it can lead to depression, binging or self-medicating."
Since 1997, former contestants have accounted for at least 12 suicides, countless attempts and one murder. With each passing year, the numbers and nature of the fatalities are ratcheted up. Last year Ryan Jenkins, a contestant on the VH1 show "Megan Wants a Millionaire" committed a murder-suicide shortly after filming ended. In 2008, a rejected contestant on "American Idol" fatally overdosed outside of Paula Abdul's home. That same year, a month after being eliminated from "Paradise Hotel 2", Nathan Clutter climbed to the top of an Alltel cellular tower and jumped to his death. His family believed the 26 year-old may have been grappling with bi-polar disorder.
While most series provide rigorous psychological evaluations and background checks, Huysman believes there's only so much you can test. "Personality disorders are easy to cover-up in an evaluation and sociopaths can go through any assessment and get on." Then there's the problem that risky, unpredictable personalities are more likely to create conflict and better TV.
In an article on the reality show selection process in The Morning News, "Hell's Kitchen" contestant Ralph Pagano describes his mental evaluation pre-screening this way: . "They want to know if you're crazy, and if you are crazy, what kind-homicidal or just fun?"
That mentality can lead to devastating consequences as Dr. Richard Levak discovered on the set of "The Contender" in 2005. A veteran of Mark Burnett shows like "Surivivor" and "The Apprentice", Levak evaluated the candidates for the boxing show, including Najai Turpin who shot himself before the series aired. The nature of the field of focus-- fighting-- seemed to make mental stability impossible to isolate.
"If you were trying to choose 12 or 16 who are the picture of mental health, you just wouldn't find any. They all had issues, but they were all remarkable people," Levak tells the Morning News.
Meanwhile Ron Copsey, a contestant on the British reality program "Castaway," doesn't believe mentally unstable contestants should be cast at all. "Producers could start by only recruiting those robust enough for the challenge and by offering appropriate support and aftercare," Copsey says in an interview with The Guardian. "Why does there always need to have been a fatal train crash before the dodgy rails are fixed?"
Since his 2000 appearance he's won a libel case against producers and become a counselor for former reality show stars. "I've watched the damage caused by reality TV get progressively worse," he says in the interview. "Many people who feel their lives have been destroyed by reality TV have contacted me for help and support - some of them suicidal. Their suffering is real - and a high price to pay for entertainment."
On the flip side, many contestants have reaped financial and emotional rewards from reality TV. Participants on both "Top Chef" and "Project Runway" have launched stratospheric careers as a result of their appearances. And if you're dream is to be in entertainment broadcasting, your best bet is to participate in "America's Next Top Model" or "The Bachelor." The entertainment industry has been chewing up mentally unstable stars since the inception of celluloid. Look no further than Elvis, James Dean or Marilyn Monroe for examples. The only difference now is that more people have access to that spin cycle, and a result, the eat-up-spit-out process is hyper-accelerated.
Ever since the first reality show suicide, by a contestant on a Swedish show that inspired the stateside version "Survivor," the red flags were there.
"It's not a game when you choose ordinary people and put them under great pressure, constantly in front of the camera," Sinisa Savija's grieving widow told press after her husband was eliminated and subsequently stepped in front of a train.
When executive producer Mark Burnett launched the show in the U.S., he hired clinicians not only to pre-screen, but to provide immediate after-care services after eliminations. Other shows have followed suit. "Hoarders" provides 6 months of aftercare, while "Rock Bottom," a short-lived show, hired Huysman's team to provide post-filming services. "We'd immediately go to the contestant's house, meet their families, spend days with them allowing them to process what's been stirred up," he says. suggesting at least 2 months of intensive treatment.
For contestants and their family members, the help is priceless. For production companies the treatment's a big blow to their budget, but increasingly beneficial to their bottom line.
For viewers there's still a line between watchable breakdowns and pure tragedy. When the line is crossed, the series doesn't last very long. Perhaps it's viewer guilt, and the reminder of the pleasure we get out of other' misfortune--equal only to their rise to fame. "The Contender," "Treasure Island," "Paradise Hotel 2" and "Extreme Makeover" weren't renewed in the aftermath of contestant suicides. And "Megan Wants to Marry a Millionaire" was yanked before it even aired.
The fate of Ramsey's "Hell's Kitchen," currently in its eighth season, is anyone's guess. Though fewer viewers are likely to cheer on the chef's bullying now that we've seen the consequences. In fact, the trend is leaning towards nicer judges, like the friendly, encouraging Gayle from "Top Chef: Just Desserts". But a kind judge doesn't protect an unstable contestant from suffering the trauma of public rejection. A recent episode saw pastry chef Seth, go from sobs to aggression to self-loathing on the whim of an ingredient. It made for a great episode, but is he stable enough to handle the pitfalls of elimination?
And is the producers or viewers' job to babysit him? He's a grown man who's made the choice and has been given an opportunity to boost his career by appearing on the show. The risk and the reward are hand-in-hand and when all's said, there are more victors than victims. It's hard to place blame on any one person--contestants, producers and--the dictator of content--the viewers, benefit from the erratic, unstable mood-swings of contestants. And with reality shows becoming more pre-hatched and produced, we crave those morsels of true reality from the comfort of our couch. That is, until it gets too real.
"After there's a tragedy like the recent suicide, we start to question ourselves and the consequences of the show we watch," says Huysman. "We feel dirty for encouraging the behavior and culture of these shows." But collectively we move on, and much faster than the families and friends of those lost. "Every time this happens, we think things will change and we've learned from our mistakes, but after a while we forget, we get desensitized and it takes another tragedy that's even worse to remind us all over again."