MadZines as Social-Materialism in Action? by the Not Alone Collective

A member of the Not Alone Collective reflects on what they learnt from attending a Madzine workshop at the Glasgow Zine Library.

“What caused people distress was not so much their own mistakes, inadequacies and illnesses as the powers and influences that bore down upon them from the world beyond their skin”

This quote is from David Smail, a former Professor and NHS Head of Clinical Psychology and sums up his social-materialist perspective. When I recently attended a zine workshop at the Glasgow Zine Library, hosted by Jill Anderson  from the MadZines research project and Tam Martin Fowles from Hope in the Heart, I was grateful to encounter many themes that aligned with this perspective, including proposals to challenge the status quo and forge a better course in both the mental health system and wider society.

Members of our Collective signed up to attend the workshop as soon as tickets were available, keen to meet like-minded people and learn from the diverse experiences the event was welcoming participants to share and explore. The discussions, creations and ethos of the workshop and zine library led me to wonder whether zines are a form of social-materialism in action.

The headings below are taken from the concluding chapter of Smail’s book Power, Interest and Psychology: ‘What Then Must We Do?


People reaching out for help do not know how to remedy their distress alone. Clinical psychology and psychiatry are the authorities deemed responsible for providing the words that we should use to describe and resolve our suffering. Clinicians work to ‘demystify’ our difficulties by applying expert tools and frameworks of ‘clarification’. While it can be valuable to have someone listen carefully to us and help untangle our thoughts and feelings, the process of curating a ‘rational’ reality for ‘irrational’ clients creates a dynamic that makes the profession prone to harm and negligence. For example, research by our Collective identified ways in which practitioner behaviours can mirror domestic violence.

As a counter to this ‘expert model’, a workshop participant proposed that zines are a valuable form of peer support. A mechanism of solidarity and meaning-making, away from the heavy-handed rigidity of diagnostic labels, economic constraints, professional motivations and treatments that fail to provide respite for many. This participant went on to create a resource about how to make a MadZine safely, demonstrating an awareness of the potential unintended side effects of mental health interventions.

Keeping safe when making a mad zine

The workshop tables and surrounding shelves were scattered with a colourful patchwork of little and large zines that multiplied as the making commenced. In stark contrast to the sanitised confines encountered (both literally and figuratively) within mental health services, they were filled with diverse voices telling stories of chaos, control, confusion, clarity, fear, courage, abandonment, belonging, coercion, honesty, grief and joy. Each zine was waiting to be opened by someone who may need help to ‘demystify’ their own distress and find comfort in knowing that they are not alone.

Rehabilitation of Character

The primary premise of all mainstream mental health modalities is to create change within individuals, even the seemingly benign warmth, empathy and attentiveness of person-centred therapy. In contrast, a social-materialist perspective puts more weight on celebrating diversity and changing external conditions.

Upon entering the Glasgow Zine Library to begin the workshop it was clear they acknowledged and embraced the complexity of the human condition by embodying zine culture within the space. The facilitators were authentic and welcoming, it felt like being invited into their home. The format for the workshop was explained but there were no strict expectations placed upon participants, who were encouraged to freely explore the zines and the space as they pleased. The comfort, needs and rights of individuals were attended to without fuss, such as preferred seating arrangements, beverages, and temperature/proximity to a heater. Badges were offered to those who did not wish to be included in photographs and masks were worn to protect the vulnerable even though it was no longer mandatory. There was a clear desire to provide participants with the resources necessary for them to achieve their own goals. The autonomy and shared humanity evident within the room made it seem much bigger than it actually was. When I felt myself feeling a bit overwhelmed by the buzz of discussions around the workshop table, I moved into a quiet reading room. Sipping my tea and conversing silently with some zines, I quickly settled into a feeling of calm contentment. This was made possible by changing my environment, not myself.

Community, Chaos and Creativity in action at the workshop
Some of the zine collection in the reading room of the Glasgow Zine Library

Rescuing Subjectivity

Social-materialism encourages us to ‘affirm vulnerable subjectivity’ in response to the distress caused by attempting to appease societal pressures to conform. This can be done by acknowledging and supporting the expression of feelings of vulnerability and insecurity, and accepting people as unique individuals with their own strengths and weaknesses.

MadZines achieve these outcomes for creators and readers in many ways. They are messy, imperfect and deeply human. They make no attempt to conform to aesthetic, societal or clinical standards. If anything, they actively resist these pressures. Even when we created zines together around the workshop table, no two were the same and at times they conflicted. For example, one participant personified their anti-depressants as friendly and helpful little companions to their wellbeing, while another spoke about a mental health system that harmed their wellbeing and discouraged them from being themselves.

A further example arose during the workshop when the organisers demonstrated a simple method of folding a single sheet of paper to produce eight pages. This prompted a few participants to query if it was possible to fold the paper in a way that would provide them with more. And so the organisers demonstrated how to do a more complex method that would provide sixteen pages. However, this felt like a restriction or challenge to one participant who managed to fold their A4 piece of paper to produce sixty-four pages! This served as a continual reminder that norms and rules can and should be scrutinised. The workshop demonstrated the versatility of zines and their capacity to hold much-needed space for subjective stories of vulnerability and strength.

Zine folding demonstration
A 64 page zine from one A4 sheet

Reinstating the Environment

This final heading explores an overarching theme from both the workshop and social-materialism: Power. Many of the examples of zines that were shared in the workshop, and those created by participants, related to social justice. Acknowledging that individual wellbeing is inseparable from environmental context. The aforementioned ‘expert model’ approach of mainstream-minded professionals involves cultivating personal ‘insight’ that encourages people to ‘take responsibility’ for any adversity they experience. In contrast, a social-materialist perspective proposes developing ‘outsight’ as a form of awareness needed to examine the root causes of suffering. It is for this reason that Smail refers to talk therapies as nothing more than ‘magical thinking’, insufficient for achieving meaningful or long-lasting escape from confusion and distress.

During the workshop I was reminded of an exhibition at Bethlem Gallery, ‘What’s there to be mad about?’ This wordplay highlights the tendency of mainstream mental health discourse to view a distressed person as entirely detached from their surroundings or encourage ‘resilience’ so that they can continue to endure a ‘maddening world’ whilst remaining unscathed by doing so. The diagram below illustrates the social-materialist perspective, which contends that each of us is being constantly acted upon by powers and interests almost entirely outside of our control. A dynamic whereby individuals have very little agency to be able to create change, in themselves or wider society. Notes in red indicate how zines can play a role in both illuminating and counteracting this dynamic.

‘Impress of Power’ diagram

As an example, two workshop participants chose to create zines in response to the ongoing plight of the Palestinian people and encourage direct action; One was adorned entirely in watchful googly eyes and the other pinpointed arms manufacturers in the UK providing weapons to Israel.

Historically (and within our current neoliberal climate) mental health institutions are built upon foundations of individualisation and internalisation of responsibility for adversity, which distracts attention away from those with the power to implement truly meaningful changes. Remedying the increasing levels of mental suffering we are witnessing across society requires political action and social reform. The workshop demonstrated that zines allow individuals to express experiences, share knowledge and collectively organise against oppression.

Concluding Thoughts

Zines have historically been a catalyst for change, and attending the workshop sparked a curious consideration that zine-making may be an example of social-materialism in action. Zine culture was embedded within the walls of the Glasgow Zine Library itself, creating a space that recognised individual needs and met people precisely where they are. Zines offer accessible tools of expression, exploration and meaning-making that connect people to a supportive community, where the presence of peers is known, even when they cannot be seen. Each and every contribution is treated as a valuable piece in a bigger picture that challenges a status quo.

I realised that MadZines propel us into a realm that Smail had described as doing ‘traditional psychology inside out’ because they ‘record, celebrate and wonder at the extraordinary diversity of human character’. Only through sharing our uniquely imperfect, creatively diverse and brave selves with each other can we hope to create solidarity and achieve change in our maddening world.

Zine created by the MadZine organisers for workshop participants


The Not Alone Collective is a grassroots activist group that came together to challenge the status quo about mental health as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival 2023. They create art, gather stories of lived-experiences from the wider community, and conduct much-needed research on iatrogenic harm, hoping to provoke change within the mental health field. They produced a report which introduces the Adverse Behaviours in Clinicians (ABC-11) checklist, to improve services and empower service-users:

Not Alone Collective (2024) Back to basics: Moderating iatrogenic harm by identifying and measuring mental health practitioner behaviours associated with interpersonal violence.

The madzine workshop was hosted by the Glasgow Zine Library in December 2023

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