Origins of our research

by Helen Spandler

A blog about how our Madzines research project came about  

I can clearly remember discovering what we’re calling MadZines when I was in the Wellcome Collection Library in January 2018.

I was researching the first 30 years of Asylum magazine and was becoming increasingly interested in the way mental health system survivors used cartoons to challenge mainstream psychiatric assumptions and treatments. I wrote a chapter in a new graphic medicine book, Pathographics framing this, following Arthur Frank, as a form of ‘survivorship as craft’.

Hearing about this work, one of the Wellcome Collection librarians told me they were trying to establish a zine collection in the library.  She kindly allowed me to look at their nascent zine collection, before it was catalogued.  I spent a day going through boxes of diverse, beautiful, sometimes shocking, sometimes moving, sometimes bizarre, hand crafted booklets – mostly PerZines – exploring marginalised experiences and perspectives, many relating to mental ill-health and various psychosocial disabilities.

I had been interested in radical mental health publications and magazines for nearly three decades and this felt like such a rich untapped resource of knowledge and critique by people with lived experience of mental health problems.  Unlike many academic critiques of psychiatry which were often overly abstract, they felt much more accessible and engaging.

In the meantime, I was spending a lot of time in LGBTQIA+ archives researching lesbians and bisexual women’s experience of the mental health system.  When I was in Glasgow Women’s Library, exploring their lesbian archive, I started to appreciate the importance of early lesbian magazines in resisting psychiatric pathologisation.

By this time, I had become the editor of Asylum magazine and wanted to ensure we included more creatively subversive work.  Therefore, I contacted some of the zine-makers to see if we could include their work in Asylum. For example, I found a zine called ‘shitfulness’ by Rin Flumberdank & thought its humorous critique of mindfulness would appeal to our readers. As such, we re-produced it in the next issue of the mag.  Turning a zine into an article in a magazine was okay, but I felt its lost something in the translation – something related to its zine-ness, its intimate quality, materiality and aesthetic.

I started to consider whether there was something unique about zines that was worth exploring in more detail.  Jill Anderson, another member of the Asylum editorial group, who also co-ordinates Critical and Creative Approaches to Mental Health Practice in Lancaster, was keen to pursue this idea too. We had previously worked together, with Bob Sapey, to edit the book Madness, Distress and the Politics of Disablement.

We attended a brilliant zine-making session at Leicester Print Workshop and afterwards Jill made some mini zines that we could take to zine festivals and share with colleagues.  When I was invited to talk to the Birmingham Mad Studies reading group about a paper I’d co-written about Mad Studies I took the zines with me to give to attendees. Rather than leaving them discarded on their chairs (which usually happens at these types of events) people seemed to really appreciate them, especially their intimate, gift-like quality.  We’ve since discovered that this is a common experience of zine making and sharing.  For example, Paula Cameron, who wrote her PhD about women’s stories of depression, reflected that making a zine ‘served as a small gift, a reaching out, to those around me’.

As a result of these experiences, Jill and I began to develop some ideas for a new research project.  We wondered whether zines might have the potential to challenge, and possibly transform, mental health knowledge and practice, and even critical mental health scholarship itself. We have been increasingly frustrated and disappointed with the often polarised and hostile debates about mental health politics, especially on social media. So we also wondered whether zines might have the potential to create more thoughtful and respectful understanding and dialogue, something Asylum magazine has been trying to do for years.

I was delighted to receive an Investigator Award from the Wellcome Trust to explore these questions in more detail.  Jill is now the researcher on the project and Tamsin Walker, whose self-harm cartoons in Asylum magazine had helped inspire my interest in single-panel cartoons, is now undertaking a related PhD on the project.  We are also working with zine scholar and illustrator, Jacqui Batey, who hosts the zine collection, Zineopolis, and a team of collaborators and Mad zinesters.

Critical medical humanities scholars have suggested researchers need to  engage more with the creative counter-cultural practices of patients, activists and social movements.  Social movement scholars have called the strategies used by activists seeking social change ‘repertoires of contention’. 

Having done some preliminary research, we are confident that MadZines are part of a growing repertoire of contention of radical mental health movements.  Therefore, this research does not seek to assess whether zines function as a unique form of psychiatric contention, but to what extent they do so, and more importantly, how they do so – i.e. how they facilitate access to new critical ideas; and articulate multiple perspectives; and help facilitate dialogue.

Questions? Ideas? Suggestions?


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