Earlier this month, The Voice contestant Anthony Riley was found hanging from a rope in the basement of his Philadelphia, PA home.
Riley, a legendary Philadelphia street performer, wowed all the judges on NBC’s singing competition, and chose Pharrell Williams to be his mentor, but left the show in January to seek help for his struggle with substance abuse. He was 28.
About a week ago, Jamie Sangouthai, best friend to former NBA star Lamar Odom, of Khloe and Lamar fame, was also dead. Sangouthai, who publically battled addiction on television, died of a skin infection commonly associated with heroin addiction. He was 37.
Suicide also took the life of X Factor finalist Simone Battle in September 2014. The aspiring singer, who was a member of the “new” Pussycat Dolls girl group, G.R.L., hung herself in her California home. She was 25. And Pro boxer Najai Turpin, a contestant on NBC’s The Contender, shot himself in the head in February 2005 while sitting in a car with his girlfriend and 2-year-old daughter. He was 23.
Death of young people is always a tragedy, but for reality TV stars, there seems to be a shockingly similar pattern: underlying mental health issues, an often open struggle with substance abuse, and/or perceived or actual public humiliation splayed out for all the world to see.
From Joey Kovar, from The Real World: Hollywood, who was asked to leave the show for drug and alcohol issues, and who eventually overdosed to the 2011 death of Russell Armstrong, the ex-husband of Bravo’s Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Taylor Armstrong, who was discovered hanging from an orange extension cord tied to a wooden beam in his LA, home, suicide among the reality show set is definitely higher than the population at large.
But why do people who appear on reality TV shows (or talk shows, or court shows) often suffer severe and often long-lasting psychological damage as a result?
Dr. Jamie Huysman, a Miami based psychologist, who founded a special practice to specifically treat reality show contestants and their families in 1992, says that television can definitely push people over the edge – for a host of reasons, especially if there is underlying trauma.
“The thing with television is, if a person already has existing mental health challenges or has trauma that’s unresolved, and it comes out on television, it’s like pouring gasoline on a fire,” Dr. Huysman told HelloBeautiful. “Trauma gets triggered in many different ways but the camera can do it faster and quicker.”
Dr. Huysman says that cameras are very seductive, and even if you are not necessarily humiliated, producers can often goad you into saying or doing something you normally wouldn’t, and then discard you when the set goes dark.
“Cameras seduce people into honesty or this world of spilling it all, more than even therapists can. And when they’re riled up or coached by producers, they really can say all and do all. Producers make [on-air personalities] feel incredible. They treat you like you’re best friends of the show until the show is over. And when the show is over, all that expectation becomes the seeds of resentment. And folks are left on their own, back with the mental health problems that they may have had before, but now are open for everybody to see.”
Potty-mouthed celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, who is fond of berating his show’s contestants by calling them “donkeys” or ripping into them with expletive-laced tirades, has lost three Ramsay reality series contestants to suicide: MasterChef runner up Joshua Marks, 26; 41-year-old Rachel Brown of Hell’s Kitchen, who took her life with a self-inflicted gunshot in 2007, and Joseph Cerniglia, 39, from Kitchen Nightmares, who jumped off of New York City’s George Washington Bridge in 2010.
And yet, Ramsay’s shows don’t even hold the dubious distinction of the programs with the most reality TV deaths.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, one of the biggest risk factors for suicide is substance abuse. In fact, according to a 2009 report from SAMHSA, a growing body of evidence suggests that alcohol and drug abuse are second only to depression and other mood disorders when it comes to risk factors for suicide, increasing suicide risk by a factor of six.
Which may explain why Dr. Drew Pinkney’s Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew, has racked up five celebrity deaths, including country star Mindy McCready, who killed herself in February 2013, and police brutality poster-child Rodney King, whose fiancé found him at the bottom of his swimming pool in June 2012. Although King’s death was ruled accidental, autopsy results revealed he had cocaine, PCP, marijuana and alcohol in his system at the time of the drowning. Dr. Drew discontinued the show after the last death.
Dr. Huysman says he has no tolerance for on-air mental health professionals like Dr. Drew and Dr. Phil (who was at one point a psychologist), when it comes to not providing adequate care for their shows, saying “they know better.”
The Miami-based psychologist, who used to work as a consulting psychologist for various daytime talk shows, now consults for reality TV and advocates having a third party therapist or social worker (not affiliated with the show) do a front end evaluation of everyone who is to appear on camera, and then offer some follow up care—what he terms “clinical pathways” so that folks have resources on hand when they hit hard times.
“These shows make tens of millions of dollars. To pay $50,000 a year for a case manager, for guests when go back to their hometowns or areas, to be able to call them or get resources for them to help them if they go on a downward spiral is not asking too much, “ says Huysman. “I’m not saying it would save everyone, but it’s the least television can do. We have enough revenue coming into this field and we can do the best we can to not have [these deaths] happen on our watch.”
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