How can we have creative and critical conversations about madness? by Anna Stenning


The Madzines research team recently worked alongside Critical and Creative Approaches to Mental Health Practice (CCrAMHP) and Asylum Magazine to host an event on  ‘Re-Imagining Mental Health’.  It took place at the Gregson Centre in Lancaster on 22 October 2022.

Anna Stenning is a Wellcome Research Fellow at the University of Leeds and co-edited Neurodiversity Studies. In this blog post she explains what she learnt from engaging in this event, having conversations about neurodiversity, mental health and, of course, zines…..



Even everyday language can show that there is more to us than the labels or roles that other people have given us and which have singled us out for various kinds of treatment. We help each other to make sense. What does not help this process is the stigma, and mistrust, which unravel this process.



What the ‘Re-Imaging Mental Health’ event did was to offer a space in which just these sorts of understandings, and disagreements, could be shared between people who have received support for their mental health, their friends and family along with their carers and supporters, including those who are paid to support them or provide services.  The CCrAMHP group provided a series of spaces and activities that people could move through and talk about, without disclosing their status or identity unless it felt safe. This helped to build confidence in the process of making sense: the activities were suggested rather than directed, and there was no one telling us how we ought to be doing things. Since there wasn’t a single ‘way’ to go through the activities, it didn’t feel like there was a learning outcome or that we were defined by how much we spoke.


Activities included a zine-making workshop, facilitated by Charlotte Done and Tamsin Walker; a series of films in a mini-cinema; and a quiet zine reading space, including work by zinesters such as Steven Fraser, Rachel Rowan Olive and Andrew Coltrin. We could take part in making embroidered post-it notes with Jane Thakoordin from Birmingham Artivistas and make friendship bracelets with Kizzie Felstead from CCrAMHP and Lancashire Autism Partnership Board. We could take part in a dance movement exercise and eat a chip butty in the Olive Bar (the latter of which I, at least, did). There were also a series of more structured question and answer sessions in the afternoon, but it was not compulsory to participate. The lovely Gregson Centre, on Moorgate, was a perfect venue because it had plenty of quiet spaces as well, including a zine reading tent!


Since I was already interested in zines, I was drawn to both the zine-reading and zine-making areas. I was pleased to find out about Tamsin Walker’s zines, which also form part of her PhD research on the Mad Zines project, which is about the making and sharing of zines. The films, compiled by Bob Sapey, encompassed place-based initiatives such as the Tara Centre in Lancaster as well as prompts for thinking in new ways about madness and distress. You can view the Youtube playlist here.


The zines connection was a bonus but it wasn’t the main reason I was there. Jill Anderson, Paola Debellis and Isabelle Finn-Kelsey and I had been meeting and writing together during the past year-and-a-half in connection to our shared interest in alternative spaces of learning for community-building and activism. We’d all been involved with free-to-access online watching/reading and making groups during the pandemic. Since we are all involved in academic research as well as issues related to care, we have been thinking about what these communities can teach us about access, collaborative problem-solving and care outside of hierarchical institutions.


At the beginning of the Re-imagining mental health event in Lancaster, I had been wondering if I’d be able to contribute anything because I’m not from Lancaster and don’t work on Mental Health. Even during the afternoon, I still struggled to trust myself to talk about these things in a bigger forum.  In my work I identify as neurodivergent but I have never talked in public spaces about my own mental health,


If we are pushing back against the idea that autism, ADHD or dyslexia are inherently harmful and in need of curing, rather than supporting through environmental change and facilitation, how do we create space to talk about experiences that are at the edges of existing language and narratives, and thereby easy to dismiss or see as symptoms of something else? How do we create new stories that don’t take others hostage to our own perspectives?


In the blog Jill, Paola, Isabelle and I have been working on, we discussed the idea of expressive freedom and its importance both to the development of knowledge and to overcoming stigma. The blog and Zoom discussions have helped us to create a shared language and understandings of how we sustain each other by talking in mutually respectful ways. The Narratives of Neurodiversity Network offers another space to talk about the need for a plurality of stories that recognise the intersecting strands of our identities and our different starting points across the world.  But research project timelines don’t always have much time for this kind of practice and we end up with languages and frameworks that exclude people because they are created at one remove from the people they are supposedly for, and without these practices of mutual recognition.


Hel Spandler gave a short talk on the Mad Zines project and helped answer some of this. Hel explained her own involvement in the zines project. Having working with the different ‘models’ of disability and mental distress for some time she said that there was only so much that could be generalised. Zines provide a space for expression that doesn’t need to be finished, that doesn’t need to be linear and contained. They also offer a place for people who are not typically included; in their materiality, they are a literal site for connection.


I certainly felt by the end of the day that this event too had offered a place for interrelatedness. Even if I had not managed to say a lot, I felt that I had established some connections that would help me to make sense of things in the future. Perhaps, I might make my own zine.


Anna’s blog post prompted Jill Anderson, from the MadZines team, to reflect, in a related post, on what the event itself – and those involved in organising it – had learned from what zines do.

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