What effect do true crime podcasts really have on our mental health?

Fans of the genre on TikTok and Spotify say true crime podcasts provide them with a cathartic and supportive community.

by Emma Kershaw
04 October 2021, 7:00am

“The thing about true crime is that you can go to the depths of depravity, to the very extremes of human behaviour, and thankfully, we are privileged enough to be able to close the book, or turn off the podcast,” muses true crime podcast host Suruthi Bala. “We can experience and walk away. There are definitely positives of addressing things that are wrong with our society in a way that no one can dismiss.”

Hugely popular and often controversial and divisive, the online true crime community, on TikTok, and beyond, are finding solace in the world of true crime podcasts. Far from it being just an interest that indulges our appetite for gruesome depravity out of pure morbid curiosity, many of the genre’s creators and biggest fans say the community in fact is hugely cathartic and even beneficial for their mental health.

True crime has certainly gained the attention of TikTok users, the hashtag #truecrimepodcast has over 102 million views.  Olivia Snake, a US-based creator, is a major contributor to those numbers, sharing true crime content with her 1.2 million followers. “In the beginning, my account was a random collection of my interests because at the time I had no intention of it being more than a creative outlet,” she says. “Then there was a moment of me thinking true crime is in my life so much with the shows and podcasts I consume, so why not bring that to TikTok?”

Podcasts are a big part of Olivia’s life, and have become her “go-to form of media”, whether that’s listening to them, or producing her own show — Goddess Complex. “For me, [true crime] podcasts help me find perspective on my life and understand how fortunate I am to be alive,” she explains. “Some truly amazing hosts handle hard topics incredibly well.”

Lara Whitley, another US true crime TikToker and podcaster, says she has had an interest in true crime for “most of her life” and listens to true crime podcasts “almost every day”. She says that, far from being just a morbid interest, they help her feel more resilient, safe, and powerful, and even find a sense of belonging. “The community that [true crime] brings together is one of the most accepting, empowering, and supportive communities I’ve been a part of,” she says. “Many of us strive to be victim-focused and cognisant of how our words can impact their loved ones. I know the genre is not for everyone, and I completely understand why. I have to achieve a balance between consuming too much and listening to my favourite shows,”

For Lara, true crime podcasts became a lifeline after being sexually assaulted during her time at university. She says that, while she was “in a horrible place mentally”, podcasts helped her “process what had happened”.

“[Listening to true crime podcasts] helped me feel more prepared, less alone, and allowed me to take power back after my own assaults. Education is power and learning about true crime helps me feel stronger. It’s helped me realise that I was not to blame for what had happened to me. It is evidence and fact-based which brings me a lot of comfort,” she explains. “I also find that it helps me deal with the fact that some things are out of our control. It can be scary to be a woman in this world, and I’m a white cis woman, albeit queer as hell.”

Lara has also found comfort in creating her own true crime podcast, Hellbound, which recently celebrated its 100th episode. She says that the most meaningful thing Hellbound has brought her is her relationships with victims’ loved ones. “I’ve covered a few stories about women whose lives could’ve been saved by stalking awareness and prevention,” Lara explains. “This is an issue I hold extremely close to my heart. I know how devastating stalking can be to a victim and their loved ones and I am passionate about using my platform to spread awareness of this issue. I’ve made a document for anti-stalking education and resources for anyone who may need it.”

Meanwhile, in the UK, there were over 15 million podcast listeners in 2020, up by 2.5 million from the previous year. The genre of choice is perhaps no surprise. RedHanded, a multi-award-winning British true-crime podcast hosted by Suruthi Bala and Hannah Maguire, currently boasts 1.9 million downloads per month, and is one of the top-earning shows on Patreon, with the hosts planning to release their first book later this month. Despite their ever-growing success, Suruthi and Hannah are still very much at the forefront of their community, managing their own social media channels and emails, and connecting with listeners on a personal level. 

“For us at RedHanded, true crime is the perfect mirror to hold up to society,” Suruthi tells i-D. “It encompasses all the things that Hannah and I are interested in whether it’s politics, culture, feminism, misogyny, race, bigotry; true crime is like the perfect encapsulation of all of those things with mystery.”

“Although the Facebook group can get a bit crazy sometimes, it does offer a community so people feel very free to talk to us about things that have personally affected them, and that’s really touching,” the show’s host adds. “Almost every day I wake up to emails from listeners.”

One particularly touching moment for Suruthi was after she covered the case of Jeni Haynes, an Australian woman with over 2000 personalities, in 2019. “Jeni had been sexually abused by her father as a child, and she had developed dissociative identity disorder as a result,” Suruthi explains. “It was the first case, anywhere in the world, that a victim had spoken through their multiple alters in a criminal court, and had somebody convicted.”

It was a ground-breaking moment for the legal system, and the RedHanded hosts themselves, as they received an email from Jeni after covering her case. “She sent us an email to say how wonderfully she thought we’d covered it, and how touched she was that so many people on social media were talking about what an inspiration she was,” Suruthi recalls. “I was so touched that Jeni found such comfort from the episode, and people she didn’t even know.”

It’s perhaps understandable then, that Suruthi describes the show “cathartic”. “Hannah and I do the cases individually, so we’ll spend time researching the case and writing the script, before passing it on to each other and recording the episode,” Suruthi explains. “I honestly feel like when we record for an hour and a half each week, it feels like therapy for me. It feels like a cathartic process where I’ve been working on something for a week, on my own, absorbing all of this horrendous stuff, and then I come together with my good friend and we talk about it,”

When it comes to the “why and how” of the euphoric feelings that come with consuming and producing true crime content, Dr. Mo Quadri, a consultant forensic psychiatrist at Cast Care Clinic, says that “true narratives, over fictional material, have a more profound effect on brain chemistry and connectivity”. 

“Listening to true crime podcasts prepares the listener to use higher brain function through challenging narratives of events by weighing up witness testimony and evidence. It creates a space for reflection challenging our current conceptions and encouraging exploration of our own thinking patterns,” he tells i-D. “This then allows us to translate our everyday interactions by taking an objective position. This permits better communication and decision making providing us with useful tools to better navigate relationships and encouraging overall better mental health.”

Dr. Mo also explains that, as humans, we tend to relate to the underdog, and we are drawn to real-life stories because it’s how we essentially learn from one another. 

“Our minds want us to make sense of the world around us, and the world is very complex,” he says. “We seek out, both consciously and unconsciously, themes that are simple and bring order to our view of the world. Authenticity makes us draw stronger conclusions and connections to the narratives of the story. In the case of true crime podcasts, the protagonist has been dealt unjustly, and empathically, we seek remedy. We search to see if there are any clues in the narrative that we can learn from. It creates the reinforcement in the narrative that good prevails, and that the system works.”

While true crime podcasts have had a profound effect on many different people—over fifty people got in touch to share their story in less than an hour—it’s worth remembering that many of us are lucky enough to switch off once the podcast has come to an end.

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mental health
true crime