How A True Crime Podcast Is Building Community For Those With Mental Illness

Feb 27, 2020

Numerous studies link social media use with mental health problems, like depression. But new research conducted by a Bradley University professor shows how a true crime podcast might be bucking that trend.

"My Favorite Murder" is hosted by comedians Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark. In each episode, the friends share the story of a grisly crime. But they also talk about their own lives and struggles with mental health.

WCBU talked to Bradley University's Dr. Rachelle Pavelko about how the chart-topping podcast helps others.

Dana Vollmer: What are some of the benefits that folks are saying they're seeing from engaging with this podcast?

Rachelle Pavelko: The big one is this increased feeling of social support. In addition to listening to the podcast itself, being connected with some of the Facebook groups. The major Facebook group is now archived because it got too large, but there's still a ton of subgroups. This study was based off that original large Facebook group.

We're getting a lot of bridging and bonding connections with other fans. They're sharing something about their personal mental health experience — maybe based off something that the host had said that recent episode — and really getting positive reaction and just feelings of support from other fans. So that's a huge one, the other finding just being that the role of the host has been so important.

Based on these relationships that the audience has with the host — either feelings of friendship through parasocial interaction or identification, so ‘I can really see myself in this host, I've experienced what she's experienced’ — that translates into help seeking behavior. Because the host Karen said that she goes to therapy, maybe I'm more likely to go to therapy now. Georgia is constantly talking about being willing to try new medications for her mental illness. Is that something that maybe I now have the ability to do, based on someone in my peer circle telling me it's okay?

DV: What is kind of the profile of the typical My Favorite Murder listener?

RP: Based on our study, we had an overwhelming female population. In terms of demographics, generally skewing more towards white. In terms of age range, we had everything from I think 18 to 60s.

In terms of the average listener, I think predominantly female is the main takeaway. Females are so interested in true crime, based on a lot of the talking points that Karen and Georgia bring up: that as women, we're potentially more likely to be victims of different issues and that if we have anxiety about these things, it can be helpful to talk through some of that. By learning more about a specific case, maybe we can learn one takeaway to help prepare us — we know what to look for, we can try to sort of rationalize some of the things that are happening.

DV: Is there a component of true crime that may almost have the opposite effect where it's, you know, you're listening to terrible things that could happen, but maybe are likely to does it kind of increase people's anxiety around just existing in the world?

RP: Absolutely. I think that's a part that they talk about a lot, the two hosts. They each have specific triggers that they just don't really want to address. For instance, any story that revolves around a 911 recording, Karen will say, “I cannot listen to that. I don't want to see murder scene photos, either.” Georgia is okay with both, but she has other anxieties that Karen is okay with. Just thinking through what you can can't process — and they say the same things to the listeners. If this is too much, don't go down a rabbit hole of looking for crime scene photos about this case.

I think just knowing what helps you [is important]. A lot of that comes through at the end when they say, it's time to talk about our “hooray” for the week: What is something that can maybe lift up our spirits? We've talked about all of these really anxiety-producing things, how can we end on a higher note so that people can sort of detox from the really grisly component of this?

DV: The sense of community that folks have built up on the social media platforms surrounding this podcast … it sounds like part of your thesis is that that's not typically how social media works for people. Can you talk about that a little bit?

RP: So often, there's a lot of media coverage and a lot of research that focuses on the really negative effects of social media and how spending too much time on these platforms can have damaging effects on things like a person's mental health. And that's absolutely true. But this is one case where we're seeing a positive, which is great. So because you're involved in the show simultaneously in the Facebook community, you're getting some sort of benefit for your mental health. It's sort of a nice palate cleanser from our traditional studies of spending too much time on Instagram can have these negative effects on body image, for instance.

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