Managing mental health and a true-crime podcast

Just over a year ago, “The Orange Tree” podcast hosts were doing typical college senior things: Finishing up their final classes at the University of Texas, working at journalism internships to jumpstart their career, and reporting on the West Campus murder of Jennifer Cave. 

“We definitely had that hustle mentality,” co-host Tinu Thomas said. “We were really focused on graduation, passing all our classes, and also doing this project really well.”

From the outside, it seemed like Thomas and her cohost Haley Butler had themselves well put together, but behind closed doors these women were navigating a new phase of adulthood while carrying the weight of Jennifer Cave’s story in “The Orange Tree.”

Butler and Thomas felt it was their job to tell the story of Jennifer Cave, a young woman much like themselves in college who was murdered just a couple blocks away from UT’s campus in 2005.

The podcast hosts spent hundreds of hours in the span of a year listening, reading and immersing themselves in the narrative. Listening to the gruesome details of the crime for long periods of time  — on top of managing senior year — weighed heavily on Butler and Thomas’s mental health.

“I listened to a lot of true crime before working on this project, but definitely not this much,” Thomas said. “It did take a toll on my mental health to constantly be poring over the details of a crime that’s really gruesome. We’ve heard each of these episodes and all of the details so many times at this point. Even when you’re not working on it, you’re thinking about it.”

At that time, Butler and Thomas did what many college students do when coping with stress. 

“What we would do in all honest truth is we would go drink in Spider House, and we’d call that taking care of ourselves,” Butler said.

However, Butler knew that drinking wasn’t productive. Butler and Thomas decided to lean on each other for support. 

“We were very much there for one another,” Butler said. “When we had difficult conversations with sources, Tinu and I would always be at each other’s rescue in terms of making sure that we were okay.”

Looking back, Butler and Thomas realized keeping up their mental health should’ve taken more of a priority.

“There’s this sense of hustle culture almost where you’re like, ‘No, I don’t need to take care of myself. I need to go, and I need to get this done,’” Butler said. “You don’t realize what that does to you until after the fact.”

Now, Butler makes sure to give herself time to enjoy her weekends and time off. She likes to wake up early in the morning to read her book, make a Juiceland pit stop during the day, and watch old episodes of “Courage the Cowardly Dog” in the afternoon.

“If there’s anything that I want to share with the other podcasters it’s, [making] a mental health plan,” Butler said. “Know that you can take care of yourself.”

Butler and Thomas are excited to have released the first episode of “The Orange Tree,” on July 14. Even though the past year and half was filled with the stress of making their first true-crime podcast, the co-hosts don’t think anyone could have told this story better.

“Tinu and I were the right voices to tell this story,” Butler said. “So even though I did feel pressure last year and it did take a toll on my mental health, I would do it again for sure.”

Mikayla Mondragon is a rising junior Journalism major at UT Austin and is pursuing a double certificate in Creative Writing and Elements of Computing. In her free time, she loves doing colorguard with the Longhorn Band, reading and sewing.

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