Reimagining mental health: learning from what zines do – by Jill Anderson

This is the second of two blog posts reflecting on the ‘Re-Imagining Mental Health’ event, held at the Gregson Centre, Lancaster on 22 October 2022. It speaks to Anna Stenning’s account of the day.


The MadZines team contributed to a fascinating event recently –  Zines Assemble  – at which Peter Willis, from Coventry University, introduced us to the concept of ‘zine-ic’ research. Zine-ic? He meant research that takes a zine-like approach, reflecting key characteristics of zine culture.


Peter identified five: care, collaboration, radicality, access and the sharing of knowledge. Zine-ic research embodies the ethos of zine practices whether or not it uses zines directly (for example, as objects of study, or as a means for communicating research findings). Such research, and the researchers who conduct it, learn from what zines do.


Poster design by Jackie Batey

We were, at the time, in the early stages of planning the Reimagining mental health event, and had been thinking about how our event would feature zines as content (in the form of a Madzines workshop and a quiet Madzine reading space). Inspired by Peter, I began to think about how, in the ways in which our event was planned and organised, we too might learn from what zines do.


The Reimagining mental health event was a collaboration, and was planned in such a way as to create space for contributors to take an equal place with organisers in determining the content. We strove for discussions leading up to the event to be characterised by the ethos of care that is characteristic of zine culture and that Anna Stenning, myself and colleagues had been discussing over recent months. Moreover, zines embody the idea of information being free. Inspired by events put on by Ragged University (whose founder, Alex Dunedin, helped us to record the day), it was important that there was no charge for our event, or any associated activity, such as the evening meal for those who had helped out.


A zine, unlike a book or article, need not lie quite ‘flat’. A zine can have flaps and pockets, pull out tabs, and things written on the underside. That diversity of ‘form’ is one way that zines allow for the telling of stories that are not linear. It was replicated in our use of the Gregson centre, where we created spaces within spaces: a ‘den’ on the balcony, and a reading tent in the reading room. They enabled us to achieve a flow, on the day, throughout the building, where trajectories could be straight or encompass loops and double backs and there were places just to stop.


Zines can facilitate conversation and connection. Yet they do so without demanding labels; they allow for anonymity. As Anna mentions, our day too allowed for people to disclose as much or as little of their identity as they felt comfortable doing. What’s more, zines can be about absolutely anything. At a zine fair you will find what might be deemed ‘mainstream’ and more ‘radical’ ideas sitting side by side, and that was a feature of our day too. People come with their own experiences and ideas. The possibility of taking different trajectories through the day, and through the space, meant people could choose to encounter, or draw back from, challenge.


Events like this, in the run up, generate myriad lists and planning documents. On this occasion, I made a folded zine. It was slightly smaller than A4, on dull pink sugar paper. It came with me into planning conversations and, as the weeks went by, and our thinking changed, it began to fall apart – with things crossed or torn out, stuck in and layered over. The zine both helped increase engagement with the planning process and it acted as a prototype for the welcome zine we gave to people on arrival – to tell them what was happening and provide an orientation to the zine making and reading spaces up the stairs.

By contrast with more formal academic conferences, and some community consultation or activist events, zine culture can feel open and accepting.  There is a blurring of the boundaries between the readers and the writers of zines – with one zine inviting a response from another.  That was mirrored in our event by some blurring of the roles of host and guest.

‘According to Lao Tsu the truest hospitality is when the host is like a guest, and the guest like a host’. Ben Okri in ‘A Time for New Dreams’.


Our day was summed up by one participant as a ‘really warm and gracious event where everyone seemed to relax’. That was helped by the presence of some expert facilitators – of conversations, experiences and activities.  Some are described in Anna’s blog, but there were others too, such as the mindfulness and observation based activity run by Rachel Deadman, from Ludus Dance, in the Gregson cafe bar.


There were of course some limitations too – things that we might have chosen to do differently. Could the event have been made more accessible? Almost certainly so. There were people, and therefore perspectives, missing from our conversations and debate. There were tensions too around the zines themselves – how to make our lovingly collated MadZine library available to read, without them getting lost!


We have been particularly struck, in this project, by the ‘feel’ of zines; how you can hold one, and it can act as a counterpoint to social media. Zines are small and they are mobile.  They move around, and easily escape the places that seek to contain them. In this event, a string of zines migrated from the main hall to the Gregson café bar, where they have stayed.


Zines are ‘seamful’ too, in the word coined by Paula Cameron. Seams featured throughout our day: in both a literal and more metaphorical sense. We stitched a banner which, along with swathes of fabric draped by Kizzy, gave the hall a welcoming, tactile feel. We had hoped that the day would form and reinforce new connections, stitching individuals together and providing a kind of backing, or lining, fabric for whatever happens next.
One person who attended wrote in our visitors book:

“Apart from the learning & knowledge of madness and mental health through sharing understandings, I had a chance to observe how an impactful event can be designed. I wish I could design an event like this. Maybe one day. I hope to do so. Thank you for being a great role-model for this’.


We were pleased to get the feedback, but our zine-ic approach to event organisation requires that we see it as directed, not primarily to those humans involved in organising, but to the zines themselves!


We are grateful to the Eric Wright Charitable Trust for funding the Reimagining Mental Health event, to the Gregson Centre for their graceful and generous hosting of it, to Lancaster District CVS for their support in the run-up and on the day, and to the many other people who gave up their time to help with the planning, the event itself and the clearing up!  Many thanks too to Tania at Love Lily Floral Designs in Ullswater Road Lancaster for the beautiful flowers which due to an oversight on our part failed to make it to the venue but were much appreciated by  Gregson centre punters in the days that followed.

To get more of a sense of the day itself, read Anna Stenning’s related blog post.



An interesting concept. I was not invited to Coventry and no funding for an event myself at BCU. Probably needs to be seen to be properly understood.

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