Big Brother is back – here's the psychological dangers for housemates

The psychological effects of being on Big Brother: As series 20 begins, scientists warn how housemates could face depression, paranoia and even panic attacks

  • Contestants will be cooped up in the new Big Brother house for up to six weeks
  • READ MORE: ITV steps up its mental health support for rebooted Big Brother 

After a five-year absence, the reality show that started it all, Big Brother, is back on our screens this weekend.

The 20th series – and the first in five years – will see a ‘diverse’ set of strangers from ‘all walks of life’ cooped up in the new house in West London for six weeks. 

ITV is rebooting the show as the ‘ultimate social experiment’ that goes ‘back to basics’, closer to the format of the first couple of series more than two decades ago. 

Although this year contestants will have greater psychological support than ever before, there will still be concerns for their welfare in what is both a unique and downright bizarre social environment. 

MailOnline has spoken to psychologists – and a former Big Brother housemate from 2001 – to see what mental health strains the contestants will be facing. 

The 20th series – the first in five years – will see a ‘diverse’ set of strangers cooped up in the new Big Brother house in West London (pictured)

When contestants feel like they can’t talk to their fellow inhabitants, the only one who’ll listen will be Big Brother. Pictured is the chair from the diary room of series nine where inhabitants would sit and have conversations with Big Brother’s disembodied voice 

READ MORE Big Brother steps up its mental health support for new series   

Contestants will spend up to six weeks cooped up in the house  

Dr Sarah Bishop, a registered clinical psychologist based in Birmingham, said contestants will likely encounter anxiety, stress, loneliness, mood swings and more. 

‘Living in the Big Brother house can be a rollercoaster ride for the housemates, with some psychological challenges along the way,’ she told MailOnline. 

‘Being constantly watched, feeling isolated, and lacking privacy are all naturally difficult for humans to tolerate. 

‘Having limited control over their routines and interactions can lead to frustration and anxiety. 

‘The pressure to perform, entertain, and strategise can also take a toll on their mental well-being. 

‘Add in the pressure of being under scrutiny and the fear of judgment from both fellow housemates and the audience it’s a recipe for stress and self-consciousness.

‘On a personal level too, being away from loved ones for a long time can trigger homesickness and loneliness.’

In past series, concerning psychological signs have included mood swings, sleep disturbances, changes in appetite, increased aggression, tearfulness, and self-isolation, Dr Bishop added.  

David Wilson, a professor of criminology at Birmingham City University, had worked as a consultant during the fifth series of Big Brother in 2004. 

But he resigned when the show’s makers ignored his professional advice against reintroducing ‘evicted’ housemates on the grounds of welfare (the shows producer’s went ahead with the move which led to a brawl). 

According to the expert, who specialises in aspects of imprisonment, some contestants may face more challenges once they’ve left the house than when they’re actually in it.

An expert who specialises in aspects of imprisonment referred to the Big Brother house as an ‘institution’. Pictured is the house from the sixth series 

‘Clearly, if lots of people watch, they’ll become focused on particular characters – and that external focus on them might magnify some of their mental health issues,’ he told MailOnline. 

READ MORE First photos of new Big Brother house revealed

Viewers were taken on a tour of the garden during Friday’s Good Morning Britain

‘These are not real examples, but they may have had issues with bereavement, addiction or abuse in the past. 

‘They could keep that relatively close to them or their friends, but they might not realise that everybody in the public is going to know about that because they have discussed it within the confines of an institution that’s recording their every move.’ 

In a piece for MailOnline back in 2009, when original broadcaster Channel 4 first decided to pull the plug on the show, Professor Wilson called Big Brother a ‘repellent freak show’ that ‘promoted a climate of bullying’. 

Former housemates and experts alike have also been critical about the show’s format becoming progressively worse in the chase for ratings.  

A former star of the 17th series, Laura Cartner, said Big Brother ‘ruined her life’ as she suffered with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder after exiting the house. 

And following the seventh series, a Glasgow Caledonian University psychologist also criticised the decision to recruit contestants with Tourette’s syndrome and histories of mental illness.

Dean O’Loughlin, who came third in the second series of Big Brother back in 2001, initially had panic attacks after entering the house and suffered from paranoia upon leaving. 

‘I had a history of panic attacks that had completely subsided a few years before I went on the show that returned in quite spectacular fashion for the first few days of my incarceration,’ he told MailOnline.

Dean O’Loughlin (furthest right), who came third in the second series of Big Brother back in 2001, said he initially had panic attacks after entering the house 

‘The sheer bizarre nature of Big Brother brought them back. I was ready to quit the show on night two and had to have a word with myself in the toilets.

‘When I left I had intense paranoia for the first week or so though I put this down to the fact that everybody had in fact been watching me for nine weeks and the people I passed in the street were looking at me.’ 

Dean said it felt like the ‘goalposts are constantly being moved’ on the inside, because people he’d formed a bond with were always voted out. 

He also struggled with the ‘stabbing in the back behaviour’ – voting for other people to leave each week – that was a key part of the show’s format. 

Thankfully, the show’s producers have stepped up the level of mental health support since the last series back in 2018, which will extend to after people have left the house, although it’s unclear how long for.  

This year, housemates must take part in ‘respect and inclusion training’ and will have access to one-on-one mental health support sessions before, during and after the show, the show’s new duty of care protocols state. 

Aerial View of housemates in the garden of the 2010 Big Brother House in Elstree, Hertfordshire. The 2023 house is in Garden Studios, a newly-built studio in West London

Before filming, all housemates have undergone psychological and medical assessments, which includes checks by an independent doctor and information reports from each one’s GP. 

ITV said: ‘The welfare of everyone involved in the making of the programme is of paramount importance and welfare protocols have been carefully considered to deliver robust assessment of suitability to participate, informed consent and support throughout the casting and filming process and beyond.’ 

Dr Sarah Bishop called the new duty of care protocols ‘a momentous development’ that signifies a shift in attitudes towards mental health. 

‘It’s a challenging journey from a psychological perspective, but with the right support and coping strategies, the housemates can overcome these challenges,’ she said. 

Big Brother: The Launch is on ITV1, STV, ITV2 and ITVX on Sunday 8th October from 9pm

Big Brother 2023: Duty of care protocols in full

Housemates must undergo a social media blackout, take part in ‘respect and inclusion training’ and will have access to one-on-one mental health support sessions before, during and after the show. 

The respect and inclusion training will set out expectations around use of language and acceptable behaviour in the House.

Before filming all Housemates have undergone psychological and medical assessments including assessments by an independent doctor, mental health professionals and information reports from each Housemate’s GP.

Housemates were also required to disclose in confidence any medical history or other information that would be relevant to their participation in Big Brother.

In addition their family and friends will be asked not to post any content on their individual social accounts for the duration of their time in the House in a social media blackout.

ITV also said that the Housemates have received information about the experience of taking part in Big Brother including the possible positive and negative implications.

The contestants also undergo a series of background checks including checks of their social media by an independent specialised service.

The show’s welfare team and other members of the editorial and production team received training in Mental Health First Aid and ‘respect and inclusion’.

ITV say the team have set out Big Brother’s expectation for appropriate behaviour and language.

Housemates are also provided with and talked through the Housemate rules which set out expectations and explain key aspects of life in the Big Brother House.

Whilst in the House mental health professionals are available to Housemates for ongoing support throughout their time in the House.

The Big Brother welfare team also support friends and family with regular contact and updates.

After leaving the Big Brother House bespoke training on dealing with social media and press will be given.

A mandatory session with mental health professional immediately after a Housemate leaves the House will also be provided.    

Further support sessions will be provided specific to a Housemate’s individual needs and support will remain in place until the mental health professional(s) have agreed an end date for each individual Housemate.

Ongoing contact by the head of welfare will continue for a period of 14 months after the series has ended, and additional help where needed will also be on offer.

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