For most of us, it started with Serial. Then came Making a Murderer. Now our weeks revolve around Mondays and Thursdays, when My Favorite Murder releases new podcasts to make the afternoon commute a little more grim (but in a good way). If it seems like everyone you know is obsessed with true crime, you’re probably right. The genre has grown by leaps and bounds over the last few years, picking up a huge following among women, especially. But sometimes the crimes and circumstances discussed can be brutal and haunting. What does that mean for our mental health?
The MFM Effect
My Favorite Murder (MFM) hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark have spoken about their own mental health issues since the early days of the podcast, which launched in 2016. Their candidness has inspired a huge response from their community of listeners, who refer to themselves as “Murderinos.” Many have written in to ask the podcast hosts for advice on finding a therapist. Others were simply relieved to feel less alone — not only in their true crime obsessions but also in their mental health struggles.
As the MFM community has grown — a private Facebook group is now home to over 200,000 members — the link between mental health and true crime fandom has not gone unnoticed. In 2017, The Atlantic published an article entitled “How a True-Crime Podcast Became a Mental-Health Support Group,” which highlighted the empowerment derived from mental health discussions in the Facebook group. And among the community’s hundreds of interest- and location-based spinoff groups, several have been established specifically to support Murderinos with mental health issues.
finding a therapist who “Gets it”
Erin Parisi is a licensed mental health counselor and certified addictions professional in Orlando, Florida. She’s also a dedicated Murderino. After Parisi “outed” herself as a therapist in her local Murderino Facebook group, she was surprised by the responses she received.
“Way more people reached out than I anticipated, and several thanked me — thanked me! — for my ad, so that they could see a therapist that would ‘get’ them,” she says. “It helps that we both know the sayings and inside jokes, and apply some of the mantras to the way we talk about mental health in session.”
For true crime buffs — especially those who identify as part of a special fandom, like Murderinos — the fascination with grisly tales can feel like another barrier when seeking mental health support.
Parisi has experienced the difficulty of finding a therapist who “gets it” firsthand. “To me, having a curiosity about how people operate, all people, nonetheless people extremely outside the ‘norm,’ was natural,” she says. “Then the first therapist I sought out as an adult told me that my interest in these areas meant I would marry a serial killer or addict (neither of which is true… as far as I know… ).” Parisi switched therapists immediately.
But even among therapists who understand the true crime genre, opinions are mixed.
the trouble with triggers
Dr. Ashley Hampton is a licensed psychologist and business coach with experience working in the federal prison system; she has worked with survivors and perpetrators of trauma. Hampton cautions that, as far as mental health is concerned, the true crime trend has some benefits, but many more drawbacks.
On the plus side, Hampton says, “people feel less alone, as they understand others have experienced trauma and survived, as they did.”
But engaging with the genre in any medium, whether listening to a podcast or reading true crime books, can be triggering for trauma survivors. “This is not an effective way to remove a trigger,” says Hampton. “Instead it is likely to remove the sensitivity to a crime being a horrendous event. People like to say their trigger has been removed, but in fact, they have just numbed the emotion surrounding said trigger.”
Parisi echoes these concerns. “For someone who has their own trauma, especially of a violent or sexually violent nature, it can be really triggering to listen to stories that are similar, or even that don’t seem similar on the surface,” she says. “For some, it could be like picking a scab off of a wound over and over and over again… never giving it enough time to heal. This is especially true for someone who hasn’t had their own treatment, hasn’t talked to someone about what happened to them, or did talk to someone about it but the outcome wasn’t favorable for some reason.”
Additionally, Parisi points out that immersing yourself in true crime can be overwhelming. “For someone who doesn’t feel like they have enough ‘positive’ to balance it out in their lives, adding this much negative could worsen a mental health condition by giving you the illusion that these crimes/acts are more common than they really are,” she says.
On MFM, Parisi notes, Kilgariff and Hardstark keep things balanced with humor and positive messaging, including an end-of-show segment called “F*cking Hooray.”
In fact, many of the podcast’s recurring ideas are about self-care in one form or another. Slogans like “get a job, buy your own sh*t, stay out of the forest” and “pepper spray first, apologize later” have become Murderino shorthand for being smart and safe. “What it is that makes people feel more safe and more secure differs from person to person,” says Parisi. But she points out that there are plenty of reasonable steps to protect yourself from harm.
As for the not-so-reasonable stuff, she suggests confronting negative thoughts head-on. “Like, how common are serial killers actually?” she says. “How likely are you really to be murdered? Is there a possibility? Sure. But it’s actually pretty small.”
What’s your favorite true crime show? Tell us about it @BritandCo!
(Photo via Getty)