Take It Back: Zines, Madness and Mental Health

Lilith Cooper introduces Take It Back, a participatory zine making project about madness and mental health

Take It Back is a participatory zine making project made possible through an Unlimited Emerging Artist Award. The project came about because of the ways that many experiences of mental health and madness are made invisible by mental health campaigning and mainstream narratives that demand our experiences be coherent, positive, complete, verbal, linear and singular. Much work to facilitate ‘telling stories’ in mental health focuses on the kind of verbal narratives that are familiar and relatable, and do not leave room for creativity, ambivalence or experimentation. They often require access to specific knowledge or spaces and can leave out many members of the Mad and mental health community, especially those who cannot sufficiently speak from a place of ‘recovery’. Take It Back uses zines to facilitate the creative explorations of experiences beyond words and to ask how, why and where we might share these experiences with others.

Photo: Lilith Cooper

Zines, broadly, are self-published, DIY, not-for-profit booklets or pamphlets. The genealogy of anglophone zines can be traced back to science fiction fanzines made in the 1930s, however they sit in a much wider, and more global, context of other small press or DIY publications – for example, Little Magazines in India from the early 20th century onwards (Nerlekar 2017). Contemporary zines are difficult to pin down and define, either in terms of materiality or content, and in my day-to-day life as both a zine maker and a zine librarian, I am reluctant to get weighed down by definition. Increasingly, I describe zines as a diverse set of practices, driven by certain values, necessity, or history, but essentially ‘rooted in the idea of diy no-skill non-profit forms of self-publishing’ (Casio 2019, 3).

Many zine scholars recount where they first encountered zines, their zine origins story or what Inge Stockburger calls “zine discovery narrative[s]” (2011) but I couldn’t tell you mine. I imagine it came through comics; going back through my comics collection, amongst the more traditional issues and trades, are things more identifiable as zines. I attended my first zine fair was in 2017. My partner and I had travelled from Edinburgh to London for an event but snuck off to Weirdo Zine Fest which was being held at Sutton House in Hackney. Walking between tables, I felt totally overwhelmed. It was this huge leap from making our own zines on the floor of our bedroom to seeing other people’s zines spread out on tables in a National Trust property. Zines rapidly took up more and more of my life; we started tabling at zine fairs ourselves and set up the Edinburgh Zine Library (EZL). Facilitating zine workshops through EZL, I found a way to marry my own artistic practice with a belief in collaborative, participatory working.

Lilith Cooper, ‘Psychosis 2012’, 2017.

I spent most of my late teens and early twenties in and out of psychiatric hospital. I was diagnosed with schizophrenia when I was 20, and later with EUPD, and my life was punctuated by chaos: blue flashing lights, crisis team meetings, court attendances, PICU beds. I was lucky; eventually and with the right support, something that my race and class helped me access, I was able to find a way through. In ‘recovery’ I joined the Peer Support Worker pipeline and got a place on the Peer Employment Training at my trust’s Recovery College. Throughout all this I had been studying for my undergraduate degree with The Open University. Rather than choosing a set degree, I made use of their Open degree to pick and choose modules across disciplines. I found that I was drawn to modules that helped me make sense of my experiences, both individually (like through a creative writing module) and in a broader context (like a history of medicine module). I soon found the lack of this broader context in my training at the Recovery College jarring. The focus on personal strength, on individual narratives of recovery, seemed to eclipse any acknowledgement of the ways that we had wound up in mental health services, or the harm that those services had sometimes perpetuated. The demand for telling a story that was linear, coherent, positive, had me writing and rewriting my history. It felt like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Lilith Cooper, ‘Shadow Song’, 2018.

It was in zines that I found a space for the complicated, nuanced, non-linear and situated experiences of madness, mental health services and ‘recovery’. I had moved into a space beyond ‘sickness’ but that wasn’t ‘wellness’ either. I wasn’t ill anymore by NHS standards, but it felt like I wasn’t better. I’d just learnt how to manage being in the world in a way that caused the least disruption. I found zinesters making zines and writing from and of the same space. In the pages of those zines, I found new ways to understand and describe my experience. In making my own zines – short autobiographical comix – I was able to embrace the episodic, multiple and conflicting nature of my memories and the incoherence and non-sense of periods of madness. It was also in zines that I found a space to express the pragmatic ways I tell and retell my story in different contexts. Zines are a space for plurality, and so perfectly suited for talking about madness and mental health in which there is not one right or fixed way to understand or communicate your experience. In Take It Back I hope to share with others the potential of zines for exploring, understanding and communicating experiences of madness and mental health. Alongside my own work, a blend of creative exploration, activities and reflections, I will be working with three other zinemakers and artists to reflect on their own practices. This will come together in the form of a workbook zine which will be the foundation of the project.

Lilith Cooper, ‘Shadow Song’, 2018.

Take It Back is not just about the creative exploration of experiences of mental health and madness through zines, but also about asking how, where and why we share these experiences. A recent tweet caused discussion amongst zine librarians about the implications of asking zinesters to apply for ISSNs – serial numbers that would make the zines easier to catalogue in traditional library/archive mechanics. My own zine, titled 101 Ways To Resist The Archive, is a playful approach to this question – what would it mean if we consciously decided to make zines harder to archive? Like it or not, zinesters are increasingly making zines in conversation with librarians, archivists and researchers. Similarly, as Mad people, mental health service users and survivors, it is impossible to separate creatively exploring our experiences from questions of where we share this – whether it’s with mental health professionals, as part of our activism, community building or supporting others. A key aim of this project is to facilitate those conversations as part of a creative process and practice.

Annie Pocalypse, ‘Psych trauma recovery stories + aftercare’. Photo: Lilith Cooper

From the perspective of my PhD research, where I am looking at the growing collection of health zines in the Wellcome library, I think zines complicate and blur ‘Lived Experience’. Librarians Joshua Barton and Patrick Olsen (2019) identify the ways that, in bridging manuscripts and printed books, zines ‘occupy a rather uneasy place between the public and private’ (207). It is this uneasy, third space that I think is productive of new ways of knowing and being. There have been calls in the medical humanities to go beyond narrative (see Woods 2011); in the context of mental health “Recovery Narratives” (Woods, Hart & Spandler 2019) are often the only way service user and survivor voices enter medical discourses. Zines can be reflective and self-aware, can bridge academic and non-academic knowledges, complicating the binary between producer/consumer, amateur/professional, and in a health context between patient/professional. Many zines value embodied and affective knowledges – what Adela C. Licona, writing about zines and borderlands rhetorics, describes as ‘third space epistemologies’ (2012, 138) – without avoiding academic theory. Going beyond “Nothing about us, without us”, zines resist the idea of “us” as objects of study or policy. My experience as a zine librarian at EZL and of working with the Wellcome collection, as well as engaging with other zine libraries and collections, means I’m aware of the power and potential of zines brought together in a library or archive, and part of the project will explore this.

Take It Back is part of a wider landscape of work being done around zines, madness and mental health. This work includes the Mad Zines project at the University of Central Lancashire, Mad Covid’s For The Record and Quaranzine projects, the Mental Health Zine Library, Level Press, set up in 2019 by One of My Kind (OOMK), a collaborative publishing practice led by Rose Nordin, Sofia Niazi and Heiba Lamara working with artists onsite at Bethlem Gallery, and, of course, the continued work of individual zine makers creating radical zines such as the one pictured about recovery from psychiatric trauma by Annie Pocalypse. It has also drawn inspiration from the work of groups such as the Zinedabaad Collective in creating diy digital community spaces. For more information about Take It Back, you can visit my website where you can also sign up to receive The Post, my monthly PhD zine.

Lilith Cooper is a first-year PhD researcher at the University of Kent working on a collaborative project looking at the zines at the Wellcome Collection. They balance their research into zines and liminality with zine making, zine librarianship at the Edinburgh Zine Library and a participatory arts practice. They tweet @lilithjcooper.



Barton, Joshua, and Patrick Olson. 2019. ‘Cite First, Ask Questions Later? Toward an Ethic of Zines and Zinesters in Libraries and Research’. The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 113 (2): 205–16. https://doi.org/10.1086/703341.

Casio, Holly. 2019. This is fake diy. Cool Schmool Zines.

Licona, Adela C. 2012. Zines in Third Space: Radical Cooperation and Borderlands Rhetoric. SUNY Press.

Nerlekar, Anjali. 2017. ‘How Marathi Little Magazines Broke Through the Language Barrier’. The Wire, February 20, 2017. https://thewire.in/culture/marathi-little-magazines-broke-language-barrier

Stockburger, Inge. 2011. ‘Making Zines, Making Selves: Identity Construction in DIY Autobiography’. PhD diss., Georgetown University.

Woods, Angela. 2011. ‘The limits of narrative: provocations for the medical humanities’, Medical Humanities, 37(2): 73–78. doi: 10.1136/medhum-2011-010045

Woods, Angela, Akiko Hart, and Helen Spandler. 2019. ‘The Recovery Narrative: Politics and Possibilities of a Genre’. Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, March. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11013-019-09623-y.


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