Disclaimer: There could be trigger worthy content in this article. Please proceed with that understanding and knowledge that there will be discussion on suicide in the following article.
There’s one aspect of reality television that hardly ever gets talked about and that we almost never see. What happens when the camera stops rolling and these people go back to their regular lives? For Survivor contestants, it has to be a harsh and immediate shock. Going from living on the bare minimum in terms of supplies, sleep, and comfort right back into your normal life is quick a change. Survivor is a physically and mentally demanding experience and whether anybody is willing to talk about it or not, it takes its toll.
The first obvious example is Debb Eaton from Survivor: the Australian Outback. Debb happened to be the season’s first boot. She also happened to be the person voted off in the premiere episode that aired right after the Super Bowl. During a time when the show was a cultureal phenomenon. Her contribution to the show was suggesting the tribe build a shelter out of rocks and being voted off. Essentially, she was treated as kind of a joke of a person.
When she got back home and the show aired, her life was in shambles. A prison guard by occupation, Debb was mercilessly mocked by the prisoners where she worked. The media didn’t make it any better as she confessed in the reunion show.
I got home and the press pretty much tore me apart . . . and I seem to have lost my belief in myself
It came out during this press witch-hunt that Debb had married her stepson after her husband had passed. Now she had met her stepson after he had become an adult so it’s not nearly as weird as the situation would have been had she played a part in his parenting. He was also only 11 years younger than him. Nevertheless, the press had a field day with this and destroyed any credibility Debb may have felt she had left.
Now you may be thinking to yourself, “this is a one-off case of a woman having a bad experience”. Especially because back then, people were especially harsh because the contestants were essentially quasi-celebrities coming out of the show. You would be wrong because it still happens in modern seasons, with much easier access for the fans to berate the players.
Coming out of Survivor: Philippines, Russell Swan had a terrible experience. His Matsing tribe lost every possible challenge during his time in the game. It rained extensively, reminding him of the massive downpours that contributed to Russell’s first time out on the show; when he nearly died in Samoa. Though he once thought himself to be invincible, Russell had to come to terms during Philippines that sometimes, he was going to lose like everyone else too.
When I came back from the Philippines, I went into denial. I couldn’t sleep; I was irritable. I thought, “I’ll pretend like it never happened.” I hid everything that had to do with the experience. And it was working, until the show started airing. When they announced that I had returned, I thought, “Oh, crap. It really did happen. I want this to go away; I need this to go away.” But every week the show would play, and it’s like I relived it again: the failures, the discouragement.
I have never really experienced depression, but this is activity-induced depression. I can’t be like this. I have a daughter, and she won’t understand if I’m up in my own head all the time. So I have to compartmentalize being on Survivor and move on.
Not only did Russell have a brutal second time on the show, it was made worse by the burgeoning age of social media and online naysayers. Every week, Russell had to watch himself fail on television and then have countless of trolls telling him how much he sucked online. Anybody in his situation would have eventually caved into feeling badly about themselves put under such scrutiny. He even acknowledged during the Philippines reunion show that it had taken him some time coming out of the game to feel like himself again. It’s one of the few times that Survivor has really recognized that these people go through some stuff not just during the game, but post-show as well.
While I never watched her season, Katie Gold who appeared on the inaugural season of Survivor Australia, suffered similar issues. The fans of her season did not like her as a character and it transcended into real life. She would get hate mail about how she was a disgrace and disgusting. It took several years of therapy for Katie to eventually overcome the clinical depression caused by her appearance on Survivor Australia.
A big part of the issue is how people are portrayed on the show. In our everyday lives, we all deal with our dualities. We all have our good qualities and some not so good traits. It’s a fact of life that is understood. Nobody is perfect. Nobody is a complete hero or a complete villain. On television, things are a lot more black and white. On television, somebody can be a hero or a villain, even if that person is playing themselves on a reality show.
Americans aren’t comfortable with ambiguity. So, just like a dramatic series, the producers decide before taping who will wear the white hat and whom the black. The problem is, we all are made up of good and not so good qualities and the contestants don’t get to choose which qualities they want displayed to the audience.
On Survivor, that has never been truer than in the case of Jerri Manthey and her portrayal on both Survivor: the Australian Outback and Survivor: All-Stars. On the show, Jerri was depicted as a cold-hearted bitch. She was shown persecuting Kel Gleason for hiding beef jerky from the tribe. While the show made it seem like Jerri had manufactured that lie, evidence over the years suggest that Jerri was simply telling the truth.
It’s not the only negative thing Jerri was shown doing during the show. She argued with Keith Famie over cooking. She was edited negatively in her relationship with Colby Donaldson because he did not return her attraction to him and Colby was the show’s golden goose. She became so disliked by the audience that people were happy when her own alliance turned on her and cut her loose early.
It’s hard to explain how hated Jerri Manthey was in 2001. She received hate mail and death threats constantly. She couldn’t walk around without people telling her how much they hated her. Jerri was essentially made into a social pariah thanks to the show’s edit. Could she be annoying and mean? Certainly but the edit stripped her of any other quality and made her into a one-note villainess and it definitely had an impact on her real life.
In All-Stars you could tell that Jerri had been affected by her portrayal in season two whether she admitted or not. Every decision she made in the game seemed to be weighing against how people would react while watching. Unfortunately for her, she got into a fight with Rupert Boneham over shelter building. At the time, Rupert was the Survivor god amongst men and going against him was a death sentence. She also took a lot of glee in getting revenge on Colby. Both of those things ensured Jerri would remain disliked by the fans and heavily criticised at almost every turn. During the reunion, she even spoke up about the fans’ treatment of players outside of the game.
This whole thing is making me so sick. This show is a show about entertainment. This entertainment is coming at a price. What it has cost us? Our friendships. Our feelings. Our pain. Our suffering. For entertainment!
What she was responding to on a first level is the nastiness that had been All-Stars. These people were far too close and played a cutthroat game that led to some bad feelings between lots of former friends. On a deeper level, this was also Jerri airing out some frustration over two seasons worth of one dimensional editing where she could only ever be the “nasty bitch”. How did the Madison Square Garden crowd react? Jerri was booed off the stage. I ask the question: was Jerri wrong? Was she not just telling the world her realities of being a TV villain in her everyday life?
Of course, Jerri got a nice bowtie on her story arc when she was asked back for a third time. On Heroes vs Villains, Jerri got a much better-rounded edit that showed her as more than just an evil shrew. She went from being hated by all to one of the more likable people left near the end of the season. For Jerri, she ultimately good a nice ending on her Survivor story but that isn’t going to be the case for most.
Take someone else from that very same season Jerri got her happy ending in. Heroes vs Villains’ first boot was Sugar Kiper originally from Survivor: Gabon. Before going out to film her second season, Sugar had hooked up with Survivor: Tocantins winner James “J.T.” Thomas who was going to end up on the same Heroes tribe as Sugar. When they lost the first immunity challenge, the entire tribe decided to vote out Sugar in unison.
Being voted out first hurt Sugar pretty badly. Having J.T. as part of that group made it worst. It sent her into a spiral where, as she claimed on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, Sugar decided she want to hurt herself.
I was really wasted because they just ply you with alcohol. … Everybody went to sleep and then I went and got aspirin out of the medical thing and like, you know, figured out how many I needed and piled them up and was about to start taking them–I wanted to hurt myself.
Sugar had to be evacuated out of pre-jury Ponderosa and sent to Australia to be monitored. Production feared that she would try to hurt herself again and they wanted to mitigate those chances. As Sugar said, she had told her side of the J.T. story on the show but it never made the edited product.
I had slept with J.T. and been talking to him for TWO Months prior to the show — I told the whole story, but got edited. J.T. Had a REAL girlfriend in AL. He planned on killing me first… I guess to show her ‘nothing happened’? I guess? he said ‘trust me’ before the game started — and SORRY — but that can really FUCK with a girl.
The assertion that Sugar is making is another problem with the show. Obviously Survivor has a storyline that it wants to tell and having J.T. being a player back at home doesn’t fit with the theme of his being a hero. Still, it leaves the viewers missing a huge piece of the puzzle as to why certain things happen the way they do. While the J.T.-Sugar issue was more of a backstage storyline that did not impact the narrative of the season, Kathy Sleckman’s breakdown in Micronesia certainly did and it was never fully explained.
As far as viewers are aware, Kathy eventually succumbed to the rigors of Survivor and had to quit. She missed home, she couldn’t deal with being starved or fatigue and she bit off more than she can chew. That is partially correct but the show neglected to leave off a pretty big piece of information that might change how the audience feels about Kathy and production.
Before being cast for Micronesia, Kathy had been taking Zoloft to help with her severe postpartum depression. She did not inform anybody related to casting about her medication out of fear of being pulled from the cast because of it. Instead, before going out on the island, Kathy decided to quit cold-turkey. Eventually, the withdrawal kicked in and Kathy started losing her grip on reality.
While I was out on the island, my mind went to, ‘My husband’s seeing someone already,’ ‘My daughter’s going to hate me… and become a crack whore’… I was mentally going down a rabbit hole.
Not wanting to be labelled a quitter, Kathy planned to cut off the tip of her pinky as a way to be pulled from the game. Thankfully, she decided instead to inform a producer who went to get Jeff and Kathy was able to be pulled safely out of the game.
The reality of Kathy’s situation is a lot more serious than the “kooky woman who misses her husband and kids”. It came down to a real issue with mental health that the show just brushed aside instead of trying to start a conversation. Even Russell’s comment at the Philippines reunion was handled as a quick aside as the season was winding down. Nobody from the production’s side of things is trying to really talk about the issues that some of their contestants may face because of the game.
This is not an issue that lies solely on Survivor’s shoulders. The Bachelor franchise has sadly lost multiple former contestants to suicide. Other shows like American Idol, the Voice and the X-Factor have all lost some of its alumni to suicide as well. Part of being on television means exposing everything to the world. Some people think that these reality show stars know what they are getting into, sometimes the reality is a lot harsher than the expectation.
Your life is an open book to people and that makes you feel very vulnerable. When people feel very publicly shamed and humiliated that’s a risk factor for suicide. Part of what you don’t know is how sensitive people are going to be to the shame and humiliation they might experience.
To be clear, no one is accusing these shows of being the sole reason anybody falls into a depression or decides to commit suicide. Just that they have an impact on a person’s psyche and often, only the positive side of that is explored. All I am hoping to see is that we start being able to talk about the less cheery side of the coin too. Opening up the discussion is the first step towards helping people heal from their wounds and nobody should have to go through the tough times in the dark.