Mad Studies at Northumbria University: a MadZines dialogue

Jill Anderson and Hel Spandler recently facilitated a stimulating discussion about MadZines with the tutors (Toby Brandon and Phil Saint) and students on the Mad Studies module, part of the BSc (Hons) in Integrated Health and Social Care at Northumbria University.

Cartoon of dog and cat talking

The group had watched the MadZines team on MHTV before we met online. They came along having already made strides on a compilation zine about Mad Studies.

Some people had encountered zines before.

Therese had produced a zine many years ago, about events in their local area. She told the group that, sadly, that zine has now become ‘an A4 magazine selling things’. That can happen to a zine: if it becomes too ‘successful’, it can evolve into something else and effectively stop being a zine.

But ‘what is the point of being in a ghetto?’, one student asked. ‘What’s wrong with being mainstream’?

Those reflections kickstarted our discussion:

Zines and Academia

Starting with the zine that had ‘sold out’, we traced some parallels between the Zine scene and Mad Studies.

If lots of universities, like Northumbria, started to run Mad Studies programmes – if there was an agreed curriculum, and external examining processes – might Mad Studies be seen to be ‘selling out’, by becoming mainstreamed, commercialised and assessed? Might it even cease to be Mad Studies?

We spoke about the tension between something – whether a zine or a new area of study – staying ‘niche’, and the pull to open it up to other people, to make it accessible and have an influence.

We strayed into wondering whether, though they often seem poles apart, there could be said to be parallels between the zine scene and more mainstream academic research?

After all, much academic work is, truly ‘niche’!

Mad Studies has been developed as a critical, analytical and reflective mode of inquiry. Zine making can be critical, analytical, reflective too, but it doesn’t have to be. We discussed whether some zines, those that mirror mainstream perspectives about madness, might not be sufficiently ‘critical’. For example, self-care zines [see our recent dialogue with Meg-John Barker].

However, who decides what is critical? To some people, what we might consider as ‘mainstream’ ideas might be cutting edge. Is criticality – like relatability and accessibility – in the eye of the beholder?

Exploring (and explaining) creativity

We spoke about the struggle to feel free enough to create. On their pages for the compilation zine, two people had written poems. One had used the Indonesian Pantoum format – pronouncing it to be ‘very easy and very cool’. Another student, Helen, had written an acrostic poem in the form a letter from an emotion – courage – to all human beings

Another student commented that Helen’s contribution felt like ‘a conversation in poetry, a lovely way of doing it and very rich’. You can leave it in your brain’, she said, ‘and just let it swirl around a bit’.

Both imagery and poetry, we agreed, can do things that would be impossible with prose writing.

Dawn had produced a page with an image on the left hand side and some information about medication on the other.

We spoke about the ‘self editing’ process that is one defining characteristic of a zine.

Dawn reflected that she ‘wanted to actually put more in there, but I didn’t want someone to see it and say I don’t want to take my meds’. Of her image, she said:

“In the blank head is the dissociative blankness of depression. It’s a print with string but it’s a human body – all the chaos, the anxiety, you could say the madness. You’ve got that energy but then you’ve got that numbness that medication gives you”.

That promoted reflection from another student, “Anxiety binds you – which string does. But you’ve liberated yourself out of the string by visually showing it”. Another responded that “that thing about the string not touching the head was really fascinating to me. I didn’t get that at first, but when you explained it – POW! You take certain drugs but the numbness you get in your head while the rest of your body is still kicking off. . . That’s the issue”.

Explanation can add something to an image or a zine, as above. But can it take something away too? We spoke about how art “holds its beauty in the fact that there’s complexity and it is multi-layered. No-one wants everything explained. That’s the difficulty. Otherwise it isn’t really art is it? It’s just an explanation of what something is”.

What came out of the session?


For some it was a freeing up: “I don’t know about anybody else, but I just think that when we had that discussion around zines and how we could produce things for our zine it did unlock a bit of creativity”. Dawn was energised by people’s responses to her string image. She decided to give it a title – ‘Feel Real to Heal’ – and submit it to Asylum magazine, where it was selected for the cover for the summer 2021 issue.

Phil has ‘a little guerrilla meme thing going’ on his social media.  He is also collating the artwork and written pieces, with a view to producing a zine about the course – to be refreshed every year and sent through the post to new students in the autumn. For Toby that has value too as ‘an archive and a mapping of what we’ve done’. But ‘yes’, he reflected, ‘we could completely destroy it as a concept by calling it a formative assessment!’.

Toby left us where we had begun, with some of the tensions around creative engagement at the margins – whether in the Zine scene or Mad Studies – or, as with our MadZines project, both.

Find out more about Mad Studies and, for another example of a UK MadStudies programme,  see the  MSc/PgDip, PgCert programme at Queen Margaret Univesity.

Please let us know what you think about the issues in this blog.

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