Reality-contestant suicides: Who's to blame?

Julien-Hug-and-Matt-HughesImage Credit: Kevin Foley/ABC via Getty Images; Discovery ChannelThe recent suicide of onetime Bachelorette contestant Julien Hug — a 35-year-old who vied for Jillian Harris’ affection in the summer 2009 season — has sparked another round of “who’s to blame?” media speculation. The Today show chronicled Hug’s death, as well as that of Storm Chasers‘ Matthew Hughes, in a segment this morning that wondered whether reality TV drives contestants to tragic ends:

There’s no doubt these are devastatingly sad stories. But it’s hard to know who — or what — to blame for such tragedies. There are so many reality shows these days that, just statistically, some contestants will suffer from debilitating depression that drives them to such extreme measures. However, the fact that some of those shows specifically attract and/or seek out the kind of unstable person who keeps things unpredictable on screen only increases the chances that those folks will have trouble adjusting back to real life after “reality” ends. And the fleeting-fame cycle that accompanies reality stardom, even when that “fame” is minimal, is bound to accelerate any tendency toward depression.

The question then becomes: Can we assign any blame to those who produce these shows when one of their former contestants meets a tragic end? It’s hard to say. Surely we can call for more mindful judgment during the selection process — if someone seems unfit to handle the sudden mass attention that could at any time turn to public mockery or, worse, total indifference, we can hope (however naive that hope is) that producers pass on that person instead of rushing to put his or her greatest weaknesses under a spotlight. But we also can’t realistically expect a pre-screening test that could detect depression or anxiety in order to weed out everyone with the slightest psychological issue. One wonders if any willing candidates would be left after such a process.

As for whether producers should provide more extensive post-show counseling to each and every contestant, that seems a lofty — and prohibitively expensive — pipe dream. A happy one, to be sure: Hollywood would suddenly be full of well-adjusted stars. Reality programs would be so expensive to make that only money-minting juggernauts like American Idol would survive. And gossip tabloids would fold without a thing to write about.

And that, in short, is exactly why it will never happen.

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  • whatevs

    Honestly, I don’t think shows are to blame. You have to think of the type of person you would be to be seeking fame.

    It’s no secret that a lot of reality show participants turn out to be crazy, so why can’t the ones who aren’t crazy turn out to be depressed? In either case, they’re looking for fame to give them fulfillment.

    • Tracey

      Exactly. These people had issues before their “fame.” Being on a reality tv program only exacerbated it.

  • RK

    Do reality shows drive people to murder, too, like with those VH1 shows?

    • Quirky

      I know I want to kill the cast of Jersey Shore. Does that count?

      • jr

        HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! OMG!!! that’s literally the most hilarious thing i’ve read today!!! awesome!!

      • cr

        That’s not murder, that’s an act of humanitarianism.

      • KarlHall

        @cr Word.

  • Cara

    You have to wonder what comes first the chicken or the egg? Do the shows drive them crazy, or do the people that APPLY for these shows a little loony. Look at that one show where the guy killed his date/wife…then he went on the run and killed himself. The shows are attracting the loons.

  • Dave

    I’ve never been on a reality show, but watching some of them certainly makes me want to kill myself.

    • Julius

      Love this comment. Agreed.

  • allie

    The reality show is the employer. You wouldn’t hold the employer at any other business responsible for the suicide of an employee so it is ridiculous to even consider holding the show responsible as long as the contestant is a competent adult. However, there have been many contestants on shows like American Idol who truly seem mentally ill and are exploited for that very reason. In those cases, and in the cases of under-age contestants, I do think more care needs to be taken in the selection process.

  • Kate

    Anyone watching reality shows differently after reading the Hunger Games?

    • Fangirl23

      Yes! Especially Survivor. The immunity challenges don’t seem so intriguing anymore.

  • Molly M M

    While I wouldn’t hold employers specifically accountable for suicides, the shows themselves certainly play into the neuroses and ailments of their contestants. While people sign on for those shows of their own volition, the shows probably add some fuel to the fire. They’re not totally blameless.

    • Sookie

      IMHO. The only person responsible for a suicide is the person who commits it. If you must place additional blame, then look to whomever raised this flawed individual.

      • Kara

        Some people who had wonderful parents kill themselves. Don’t start pointing fingers unfairly. And we are ALL flawed.

      • Eileen

        Sookie, you should choose your words more carefully. My sister committed suicide because she was troubled, not because she was flawed. And to state that it must be the fault of my grieving parents is cruel and insensitive.


        SHAME SHAME SHAME! Good words Eileen! We are all able to get help, from anyone, anytime, anywhere…. some just can’t get past it. That lame TV show had NOTHING to do with Juliens death! When will people realize that Depression is not a joke!?!

  • Pete

    Why just single out the producers of the shows? What about the viewers? Producers cast extreme personalities because they know that’s what draws in the ratings. If people didn’t watch, the producers wouldn’t cast them. It’s a indictment of our society when watching other people’s emotions get exploited is what passes for entertainment.

    • AA

      My thoughts exactly. those who watch these shows (and I include myself in some of them), have to take some blame, if it’s being doled out.

  • Karate Pants

    Though it’s impossible to say whether their stints on TV contributed in any way to their problems and subsequent deaths, there is NO doubt that people with known mental illnesses and psychological problems are exploited by reality television.
    “The Bachelor” exec producer/head slime ball Mike Fleiss has openly admitted to mixing a few nuts into the contestant pool to drum up ratings.

    • Kara

      There is a difference between nuts who stir up things and people who are suicidal. You can have people who come off as totally crazy who would never kill themselves. Meanwhile, the perfectly normal seeming person in the corner is the one who offs himself.

    • Reed

      Kudos for calling him out on being a slime ball. He’s a despicable human being.

  • jane lewis

    there is no way to know if people who have been on reality shows and then kill themselves would have killed themselves without having been on the reality show but person having been on a reality show and then committing suicide puts it in the public eye.

  • megs

    As far as I know, no specifics or formal announcements have been made in the passing of Matt Hughes. Also, Matt Hughes was not on a game show/reality show. He was filmed doing what he was passionate about. Please don’t compare a show like Stormchasers to the drivel that is The Bachelorette. Have some respect.

    • megs

      Correction: Just saw the police report. As of last week’s episode, I wasn’t aware of the details, though rumors were indicative of suicide.

      • RyanK

        Still though, your original point stands. Matt Hughes wasn’t some reality show contestant. He was a meteorologist and a storm chaser in a documentary show. He wasn’t some cash grabber trying to fight for a prize. He was doing the thing he loved most, all the more reason his suicide was so unexpected.

    • Breckster82

      agree – you can’t compare the two when their formats are completely different.

    • JodiMarie

      My thoughts exactly!

  • Jo

    If you watched the behind the scenes of The Bachelor/Bachelorette series you would know that they require contestants to go through extensive psych evaluations before they are selected and also receive assistance once their time is over. The shows, while they may pick some eccentric personalities, do what they can to assist the cast after the fact…they most definitely don’t just throw them back into reality to cope with the adjustment on their own. Do your research before you throw random accusations…they can’t force the cast to use the help they provide.

    • Kara

      Besides, he was on the show over a year ago. How long are they supposed to be obligated? Do they have to follow them all around for life? Three years, two years, how many is appropriate? When can you prove the person was OK for you not to assist anymore???

  • jcarla

    I just keep remembering Sean from Top Chef: Just Deserts. He went from ‘HA HA he’s funny’ eccentric to ‘Something’s off with him’ to ‘Is he on drugs or did he forget to pack his meds?’ to that last episode with his meltdown. I’m sure the producers thought Sean was just quirky and was pre-screened which means Sean was able to keep it together for the audition process.

    Now when a cheftestant starts to act up, I keep thinking about Sean and hoping he gets help.

  • Joe

    “But we also can’t realistically expect a pre-screening test that could detect depression or anxiety in order to weed out everyone with the slightest psychological issue.”

    OK, we can’t expect a screening to capture everyone with even the “slightest” psychological issue … but we can certainly expect a screening to detect participants who are flagrantly troubled. These shows ARE ridiculously exploitative, so of course they seem to want the contestants with the most psychological issues. And if they picked a bunch of well-adjusted people … no one would probably watch.

  • RyanK

    It bothers me that you’re calling Matt Hughes a reality show contestant. Storm chasing isn’t a contest, and Matt Hughes would have been there in the TIV with or without the Storm Chasers television show.

    • megs

      Ditto. Made my point about that above. It really annoys me that he was lumped in just because he took his life. Wish Ms. Armstrong would do a little more research on the shows she includes in her column.

      • Eolra

        Megs- This article was written in response to a piece done on “The Today Show” which specifically chronicled these 2 deaths, which is why Ms. Armstrong has included them in her column, not due to a lack of research. Also, though you may not like the “reality” label due to all the junk that is produced, “Stormchasers” is indeed considered “reality” television, as is, for example, “Kate Plus 8″, “Dogs with Jobs”, “Miami Ink”, “Nanny 911″ etc. It is not the same FORMAT as “competition reality” shows, but, like it or not, does fall under the reality television umbrella. “Reality” does not automatically equal trash. It is simply a word describing a show that does not use scripts and actors.

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