MadZines: a Ragged form of mental health knowledge?

Ragged University strives to connect with the traditions of free education that exist at the heart of all communities. Zine making and sharing is one of those traditions. Jill Anderson, from the MadZines project, reflects on the synergies between our work.

Zines are self-published booklets, generally exchanged with others free or at low cost. ‘Zinesters’ (people who make zines), like many of those connected with the Ragged project, actively welcome dialogue. Rough edged, and sometimes unfinished, zines are means for working out what one knows and thinks, and for sharing those insights with others. For those who have not come across the word ‘zine’ before, it is pronounced as in magazine.

What are often called ‘third places’ – spaces like community centres, pubs, libraries and cafes – are the natural home of Ragged University (see the Ragged homepage). Zines, because they are low or no-cost and highly portable, can slip easily across the boundaries between home, school, work and those other, more informal, places – helping people to share their knowledge, on their own terms. Some people like to meet, not in actual, physical spaces, nor in online ‘virtual’ spaces, but through alternative media. Thus a zine could even be understood to be a kind of ‘third place’ in itself.

A zine may be produced by an individual or a collective. It can be folded, stapled or stitched. A zine may contain text, illustrations or collage or a mixture of all three. It can be painted or drawn or block printed, in black and white or full colour. A zine may be tiny, or book sized or larger – containing flaps or envelopes or other insertions. A zine can comprise cartoon panels or strips, with complex drawings or simple stick figures. A zine can be sold or swapped, or loaned or may be freely given.

Madzomes queer zines

People have probably been making what we now call zines for a very long time. However, zines as a cultural phenomenon had their origins in the fanzines of the 1960s, which were part of a broader political counter-culture, linked to the rise of new social movements. A new zine culture has re-emerged in the last ten years or so, mirroring a new wave of progressive social movements. A zine, which can be about almost anything, is usually crafted by an enthusiast who wants to share their passion for a subject. There are punk zines, poetry zines, art zines, photography zines and fantasy zines. There are Queer zines, music zines and travel zines.

There is also a rich variety of health-related zines, created by people with experience of a particular illness or disability, often one that has been marginalised or stigmatised.  These may be collectively produced, but are more often per-zines (zines written by a single individual about their personal experience). They may be addressed to others with similar experiences and/or seek to develop understanding in those to whom the experience is unfamiliar. Steven Fraser, for example, produces ‘performance’ zines that enable one to learn, from the inside out, about experiences of autism.

The Wellcome Collection in London has a growing collection of health-related zines. They can also be found in the growing collection of local zine libraries, both in this country and abroad. The Barnard zine library, in the US maintains one, regularly updated, list. Zines are commonly sold and exchanged at zine fairs (many in the UK) though, over the past year, most have moved online. There are a wide range of zine making workshops (try typing ‘zine’ into the search box in ‘Eventbrite’).

It is perhaps not surprising that, over recent months, there has been a burgeoning of zine activity related to mental health struggles. For example, Jen Carter of the Strange Things Collective and Washington Mind has recently established the Mental Health Zine Library. Jen has been making zines all her life, including about experiences that have been challenging. Jen sees zines – this ‘tangible thing in your little hand’ – as a way to ‘make something good out of something bad’, and a powerful means of influencing services. That is, she says, because ‘zines are so personal. There are no rules. You can be anything you want to be’. It’s not, she says, like going to a focus group and giving feedback or having to fill out a questionnaire.

Whilst anybody can make a zine, not everybody wants to, or has time to. ‘I think we all know that feeling’, says Jen, ‘when you read something – whether it’s a poem or an essay – or when you see a piece of art that really resonates with you and just hits you in a certain place. Well, some people just don’t feel comfortable making that but, in the zine library – a little pop up space – they can still find it for themselves’. The power of zines is that ‘what people feel that they can’t talk about, it’s probably already out there, on the page’. Like Asylum magazine (which several of us, on the MadZines team, are also involved with) zines create a space for voices that are usually not heard in mainstream debates about mental health.

However, despite zinesters’ efforts to be inclusive, the zine‘scene’ itself may not be that easy to access. Zines are not neceessarily a priority for people who are ‘struggling to put food on the table and making sure that their kids get dressed’, says Jen Take zine fairs for example. Some people might think, ‘Ooh, am I cool enough? Am I writing about as important things? My zines are all about plants and, you know, chickens. Am I as cool as the people who are writing about politics and stuff like that?’. ‘MamZines’ were a thing a few decades back, but zines made by parents are now really hard to find, Jen says.

‘It’s trying to find out where we all fit’, she concludes, ‘in that space that is so inclusive that it almost becomes exclusive’. Stephen Duncombe, in Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture explores that contradiction; pointing out that zinesters, whilst setting out to effect wider social change, can end up creating alternative knowledge ghettos. That paradox lies not only at the heart of the zine scene, but of alternative counter-cultural politics more generally.

Jen is not alone in seeking to open up the zine scene. Lilith Cooper, currently doing a Wellcome funded PhD on zines, is concerned that attempts to facilitate ‘telling stories’ in mental health can leave some people out, especially those who cannot sufficiently speak from a place of ‘recovery’. Their new project – Take it Back – uses zines to facilitate the creative explorations of experiences beyond words. In addition, Tamsin Walker – a PhD student on our MadZines project, author and illustrator – is running zine workshops with mental health survivors who have not come across the medium before.

Our MadZines project, also funded by Wellcome, is exploring zines created by people with lived experience of madness and distress that include critical or challenging insights – that is, zines that ‘craft contention’ about mental health knowledge. We are exploring the dialogical potential of zines to open up, rather than close down, conversations and understandings about mental health.  You can find out more about MadZines on our blogsite (thanks to Ragged’s Alex Dunedin for helping us with this). You can hear us (Helen Spandler, Jill Anderson and Tamsin Walker) talk about the project on MHTV and the Graphic Medicine podcast.

The Ragged University credo – that ‘everyone is a unique and distinct body of knowledge, accredited with their own life experience and with a membership of one’ – points to the power of a zine. Zines are a tool for the sharing of grassroots knowledge between individuals and communities outside of formal educational settings. That zines have been described as a ‘rough edged’ way of knowing is further proof, if proof were needed, of their affinity with the ‘Ragged’ project.

What do you think about zines as a way to generate and circulate alternative knowledge about mental health? Have you made a radical mental health zine? Interested in sharing it? We would love to hear from you: [email protected]