Two mums whose children took their own lives after appearing on Love Island met for the first time this week – and urged young people never to go on the show.
Shirley and Deborah, mothers of tragic stars Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon, held an emotional conversation in recent days as they called for disciplinary action against ITV bosses and for the upcoming seventh series to be axed, according to the Sunday Mirror.
And Shirley had a warning for the latest contestants of the hit reality show : “Walk away now before it’s too late.”
It came as the pair hugged and consoled each other over the loss of their children who both took their own lives – Sophie, 32, in 2018, and Mike, 26, a year later.
Tearful Newcastle entrepreneur Deborah, 62, told Shirley: “I’ve wanted you to know I’ve been thinking of you for so long.
“How many parents can say they’ve lived the hell of losing a daughter to suicide? Not many people can truly understand that pain.”
And weeping Shirley, 63, said: “I told myself I wasn’t going to cry. It’s such a comfort to meet you.”
The two then sat during their London rendezvous sharing memories of their son and daughter and their thoughts on the show that brought them fame.
The seventh series starts next Monday for the first time since presenter Caroline Flack took her own life last February aged 40.
The mums’ meeting took place on the day Love Island bosses unveiled a new “duty of care” package for contestants in the wake of Sophie and Mike’s deaths.
But Deborah dismisses it as “box ticking” to keep critics at bay.
She said: “It’s a disgrace that they should be allowed to bring it back after three adored, precious people with connections to the show have taken their own lives.”
Deborah blasted the way contestants seemed to be “cherry-picked” through social media.
She said: “Producers choose certain profiles they know will get people talking – but the selection process is like modern day bear-baiting. It’s like poking people with sticks just for cheap ratings.”
Now neither Deborah or Shirley can bear to watch the show, which has been a ratings hit for ITV2 since its 2015 launch.
“Even the theme tune makes me feel sick,” Deborah admitted, as the two women dine together at The May Fair hotel, near Berkeley Square.
“Subconsciously I stop watching TV at this time of year, just so I don’t have to see it.
“When Sophie took part it was still sinking in just how big it had become.
Now everyone knows what it can do to a life and I really worry for anyone taking part. Those young people become household names.
“They’re on our screens every night for six weeks and people feel like they really know them – but Sophie was never the same after going on it.
“They don’t understand just how much the overnight fame and the trolling can affect them. They should walk away before it’s too late.”
At the hotel Shirley and Deborah scanned the extensive list of new procedures the show is bringing in.
This year’s Islanders will get extensive media training, including sessions on how to handle trolls.
They will also have financial advice to ensure they do not blow their winnings or subsequent commercial earnings.
A “proactive aftercare package” lasting 14 months will include a minimum of eight therapy sessions.
And clinical psychologist Dr Matthew Gould has been hired to review procedures and monitor stars.
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Former BT chief medical officer Dr Paul Litchfield is also being drafted in as a physician.
But Deborah is cynical about the moves, while Shirley, 63, said: “You just can’t predict how being on the show is going to affect people.”
Her son Mike, from Edmonton, North London, took his own life in March, 2019.
He found fame on Love Island in 2017 and went on to star in other reality show’s including E4’s Celebs Go Dating.
Deborah said: “No matter what training they get, nothing can prepare those kids for what they are letting themselves in for on social media.
“Sophie’s contract wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. The second page contradicted the first.
“It basically said if anything happens to you we’re not liable. This whole care package just feels like a box-ticking exercise. I won’t be happy until the show is off air.”
Former Miss Great Britain and university student Sophie was just 32 when she died in June 2018.
She had been bombarded with abuse after appearing on the reality show in 2016.
Mental health and suicide support
Helplines and support groups
The following are helplines and support networks for people to talk to, mostly listed on the NHS Choices website
- Samaritans (116 123) operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at email@example.com.
- Childline (0800 1111) runs a helpline for children and young people in the UK. Calls are free and the number won’t show up on your phone bill.
- PAPYRUS (0800 068 41 41) is an organisation supporting teenagers and young adults who are feeling suicidal.
- Mind (0300 123 3393) is a charity providing advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem. They campaign to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding.
- Students Against Depression is a website for students who are depressed, have a low mood or are having suicidal thoughts.
- Bullying UK is a website for both children and adults affected by bullying.
Amparo provides emotional and practical support for anyone who has been affected by a suicide. This includes dealing with police and coroners; helping with media enquiries; preparing for and attending an inquest and helping to access other, appropriate, local support services. Call 0330 088 9255 or visit www.amparo.org.uk for more details.
- Hub of Hope is the UK’s most comprehensive national mental health support database. Download the free app, visit hubofhope.co.uk or text HOPE to 85258 to find relevant services near you.
- Young Persons Advisory Service – Providing mental health and emotional wellbeing services for Liverpool’s children, young people and families. tel: 0151 707 1025 email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Paul’s Place – providing free counselling and group sessions to anyone living in Merseyside who has lost a family member or friend to suicide. Tel: 0151 226 0696 or email: email@example.com
The Martin Gallier Project – offering face to face support for individuals considering suicide and their families. Opening hours 9.30-16.30, 7 days a week. Tel: 0151 644 0294 email: firstname.lastname@example.org
On Friday, Deborah flew to Figueretes in Ibiza to mark the third anniversary of her death.
She spent it with Sophie’s ex Love Island boyfriend Ashley Lenco, and his mother Tanya.
She said: “The week Sophie died, Ashley and her were going to get back together. Ashley and Tanya are family to me now. Losing Sophie made Ashley realise what life is really about.
“He’s moved over there – he’s seizing every moment. We’re staying in a villa and we’ll have a few drinks to remember Sophie.
“We never went to Ibiza together so there won’t be constant reminders of the two of us. It’s just a place where I feel relaxed.”
In April, we revealed Deborah had a non-cancerous brain tumour which a doctor believed may have been brought on by the stress of losing her daughter.
She said: “I had an MRI scan and thankfully the lesion is small and not as bad as I’d feared. I have to have check-ups and I’ve had several blood tests since but right now I’m OK.”
Now all she wants is for others, with bright futures like Sophie, to be buffered from the scrutiny and social media trolling that comes hand-in-hand with high-profile reality shows like Love Island.
“I drank for a year after Sophie, to block out the indescribable pain,” said Deborah.
“I’d tell the Islanders to make sure they stay close to family and people who really care when they get out.”
And to get help and talk about their fears as openly as possible: “The pain is there every day and I would hate for anyone else to go through the losses that Shirley and I have.”
An ITV statement said: “Welfare and duty of care towards our contributors is always our primary concern, and we have extensive measures in place to support the islanders before, during and after participation.
“We have continued to evolve our process with each series, as the level of social media and media attention around the Islanders has increased.
“This includes enhanced psychological support, more detailed conversations with potential Islanders regarding the impact of participation on the show, bespoke training for all Islanders on social media and a proactive aftercare package.”