Think Positive – Zines and Student Mental Health

In the old world, I was going to be running a demonstration at the NUS Scotland’s Student Mental Health conference, talking about zines and mental health and education. Instead, I did a zoom chat with Think Positive, which goes online today (Monday 11th May), the original day of the conference. My memory of what I actually said is hazy, I’m too anxious to tune in and watch it, and inevitably I missed a load of stuff, and referenced a whole load of other things that folks will be looking to find, so I thought I’d tap out a quick blog post with some thoughts about zines and mental health and students, and some links to other people doing good and interesting stuff.

A white non-binary person with short brown hair is standing, grasping their hands together, at the front of a lecture theatre. On the board behind them, an image of zines lying on top of each other is projected.

So, a brief about me: I’m a zine maker, an artist, and an author, based in Kirkcaldy in Fife. As well as my own personal practice, I co-founded, and help run, the Edinburgh Zine Library – which is a collectively run library of contemporary zines housed at the Central Library in Edinburgh. I facilitate workshops to get people making their own zines in lots of different contexts, as well as running art groups for children and young people in Kirkcaldy.

The first question people normally ask me is what’s a zine?

There’s a straightforward-ish answer, and a more complicated one. A zine is basically a homespun, self-published, booklet or pamphlet, with a small distribution. You may have come across zines before, in all sort of different contexts, like at a gig, a comics fair, or an independent bookstore – places like Lighthouse in Edinburgh and Category Is.. in Glasgow both stock zines.

Beneath that simple answer is a  more complicated one – that you only start to dig down to when ‘is this a zine?’ becomes important, so for me that was when I started having to accept submissions to the Edinburgh Zine Library. Then a bunch of the values that underpin zines become important – the way zines are DIY – they don’t involve exporting graphic design to a graphic designer, or font to a typesetter, the way that the use of ‘cut and paste’ puts them in tension with copyright, the way they aren’t made for profit, and operate on a different economy – often not exchanged for money but swapped, traded, gifted. The way that they contain different voices and stories than seen in the mainstream media, in the dominant narrative – zines are specific, when so much media demands generalisations. Zines are a space for complexity. If you’re interested there’s lots of much better writing about zines – Holly Casio’s post the economy of zines – read it here – is a great example (and there’s a longer version in her zine this is fake diy).

A display board, with photos of zine library events tacked to it, envelopes, and a poster that reads 'Whats A Zine?' with the rest of the text too small to be legible.

Zines are also physical objects, and already I’m having to change how I run workshops and talk about zines because of The Situation. Lots has been written about zines as material objects, things you can hold in your hand, and normally at this point I’d start handing out zines – because the best way to understand a zine is to hold one, to read one.

Instead to have a look at some digital zines I’d recommend checking out the Sherwood Forest Virtual Zine Library (click here.) Or, the Queer Zine Library (find them here) allows you to see which zines in their collection are also available digitally through the zine maker.

Or, at the moment I’m reading Quaranzine from Mad Covid, which you read here and which is a great example of a mental health zine.

These digital zines are all great, but it is an important question to ask and one I think opens more generally to a discussion about the impact of co-vid: is an important aspect of zines that they are physical objects, and not just can we, but should we, be imagining them differently?

Several workshop mini-zines standing upright on a table.

Ok BUT: what do zines have to do with student mental health? And why am I interested in that?

I did my undergraduate study with the Open University after dropping out of a brick university when I was 18 during about 5 years of fairly catastrophically bad mental health. In my first term I was sectioned under the mental health act, and there was no real looking back after that. My interest in my undergraduate study was in narratives – particularly those of illness and those around mental health. How do we tell our stories about our mental health? After graduating from the OU I trained as a peer support worker with the recovery college east, and once again I found ‘telling our story’ was considered this foundational part of recovery – as imagined by the NHS. When I moved up to Edinburgh, I discovered zines and found the medium where I could ‘tell my story’ outside of the prescribe narrative of recovery I felt was being forced upon me – and I could also read countless other people’s stories told in so many different ways. Zines were the way I built a community around me, they helped me make sense of my experiences, and gave me space and language to explore different ways of telling and being. This led to my interest in zines and mental health, and particularly student mental health – as that was the period where I struggled most, and where access to this community would have been so important.

I’m really lucky to be working in an education setting right now (although not with zines, but with my other love: bikes!) as the campus cycling officer at Fife College – and outside of my work promoting cycling, it has been super inspiring to see the work the FCSA does to advocate for, engage and empower students, and build community. Student mental health is a complicated and multifaceted thing, and I’m not saying zines are the solution, but I think digging into zines, and working out how and why they tell stories about mental health, has a lot to tell us about approaches to mental health, and ways we can change our systems, priorities, and challenge our assumptions.

My work with zines and the zine library has been hugely impacted by Covid-19 – in the sense that the physical zine library is closed, all workshops are postponed, and I (along with everyone else I guess) am working to find new ways to do things. My studio is currently closed, although thankfully the organisation who manages the building have been super helpful and supportive. Now, on the days of the week where I’m not sitting on my computer trying to figure out how to get students and staff cycling, I’m trying to figure out how to build, sustain and maintain the community that zines create, without the physical acts of sending, receiving, meeting. We’ve been having regular chats as EZL, which has helped, and are working on some future events after our ‘Zine in A Day’ experiment, and I’m really grateful for the little community EZL forms, and for the broader community of zine makers and zine librarians who are also trying to figure out the same thing: how do we stay connected?

A black and white, A5 cut and paste zine about roller derby lies open on a table.

So firstly, I’ve been coming back again and again to a tweet a very wise friend, artist and all round good human (who also happens to organise Birmingham Zine Fest) put out a few weeks ago. I’ve been using it to anchor my thinking and decision making. This is from @ByngSquirrel:

Take a deep breath. I realised today that panic takes a lot of different forms. Take another breath. Does the content you’re making and sharing make sense for your organisation in the long run? Take another breath. Or are you blinded by all that is in front of you right now? Slow down. What mode were you in before Covid. Slow down. What are you really good at / well placed to do? Slow down. How do you want your work to go forward in the future. Slow down. Who do you need to focus on / stay connected with in order to keep building? Slow down.

With all that in mind, I’ve spent the last month considering what it is that zines do, what are zines good at, and how do we translate the values that I described at the top into a digital zine, for example.

Testing out different ways of engaging and creating content is an important part of learning, and I think that’s what we are all doing in this situation. There aren’t precedents, and that’s scary, but it’s also an exciting time to make lasting changes.

From my perspective, this is a great time to skill up, and share our learning. I ran a zine workshop a few weeks ago as part of the Young Friends of the Earth Scotland Online Skillshare – connecting young people who are interested in activism, social or environmental justice. (I’ve written some brief reflections on it here.)

Zines are a great vehicle to share learning and knowledge, they are dynamic, they are engaging, and they are personal. One of the fundamental values of zines is a rejection of ideas of ‘expertise’, or that single voice should be the dominant one. We are all trying to learn new platforms, and we should all be pooling that knowledge and borrowing from each other. Now is the time to figure out how to run an online platform, the positives and negatives, how to secure it, how to safeguard the people inside it.

You could share that learning in the form of a zine, but more importantly is the belief, the underpinning values, in democratising it. Share it amongst staff, share it amongst students who a) are probably trying to organise their own things and b) almost certainly have loads of knowledge and experience to contribute.

Y’know, as an example, Zoom bombing became a big thing the week before last – with zoom links posted on terrible forums, and then pathetic people diving into groups to hurl abuse. Just like in the early days of the internet, things can feel new and scary. But the best defense is learning how to use technology, mastering Ig TV, figuring out twitch – you almost certainly have the skills and knowledge already embedded in your institution – in staff and in students, and a zine is a great way to draw it out and share it.

PLUS we can’t not look to and acknowldge people who have already been doing this work, and be just super grateful and respectful of all the effort they were putting in before lockdown. Communities of disabled people, chronically ill communites, service users, survivors, mad activists, spoonies, those who were already experiencing isolation and skilling up and doing things together, BIPOC, queer and working class communities who have been practicing, honing mutual aid – they’ve led the way for us all. I’d suggest checking out the work of Drawn Poorly Zine here (and the workshop they are running at Glasgow Zine Fest is listed at the bottom) – they were running cross-platform, innovative, accessible events well before everyone else got stuck in their homes.

There’s also something to consider of the ways working with zines can translate to sharing self-care or coping skills, and also like, in terms of the long-term impact, you’ve got a whole student body next year carrying this period of uncertainty, and trauma, and loss, and facing ‘new-ness’ and change – and I think sharing knowledge, and sharing experience, processing and articulating things as a community, DIY or DIT (do it together), in the form of zines of otherwise, is just super important.

There’s a great paper by Jackie Batey about the visual narratives of mental health in the zine collection at the university of Portsmouth and how this can support students, and I’d definitely recommend checking that out (read it here) , cos it’s a great examples of how zines can visually communicate in a way just a leaflet or a blog post or whatever can’t. And also I guess how making zines is a reflective process in itself which can help towards better mental health.

Zines are a place for outsiders, and people take many routes into zines and feel connected to the zine community in the same way as they may feel isolated and alienated from the communities they are physically located in.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how zines go about doing this work of building community – and specifically an embodied community. Zine academics have written about this before – particularly Alison Piepmeier whose book I have here. An embodied community is a community that you feel physically in the room with, even though you’re not. It’s opposite, I guess, is an imagined community – a community of people that you experience only in your head. Thinking and talking about how zines, these flimsy bits of paper and card, created embodied community, summon people into the room with you, might give us some clues as to how to replicate this substantive, tangible community right now, when we are all physically distant from each other.

A screenshot of a youtube video. I white non-binary person in glasses is staring through the hole made by a folded mini-zine. In the background, you can see a white woman with short curly hair laughing.

In my work in the last few weeks I’ve been experimenting with different ways to create the feeling of physical connection, community, whilst distant. This has included running zine workshops over the video conferencing platform Zoom, on Instagram live, cross-platform through hashtags, filming myself making and talking about zines, filming a zine workshop for Youtube, and recording audio descriptions and narratives of my zines and zine making. You can have a look at my first digitally distributed zine here.

But, going back to the sharing of knowledge, whilst The Situation has the opportunity to make our working more accessible, and so more inclusive it also has the potential to make it less so if we don’t do it thoughtfully, with intention and listening to people already writing and talking generously about accessibility and technology – consider many people don’t have access to the same technology, and not all digital platforms consider the needs of D/deaf, Hard of Hearing, neurodiverse or visually impaired people.

I think the Rumpus Room in Glasgow (check them out here) is a great example of playing with both virtual events and physical connection – they run these art clubs for young people in the area, and before hand they head out to contact-free drop off the resources needed to participate on the doorstep of young people who need it. That’s just something I’ve seen and have reflected on in the context of the zine library, and the art clubs we run for young people in Kirkcaldy.

I think one of the important thing about zines is they deal with the specific, rather than the general. I run workshops with lots of different groups, within education settings – like particularly societies, or students with shared identities – and outside of them. What I would say is that zines give student’s an opportunity to see themselves reflected somewhere else, and that this is a fundamentally part of belonging, of community, of a shared identity, which is foundational to building relationships. Being able to house Edinburgh Zine Library at the Central Library meant zines allowed us to take ownership of a space, and it’s important to us that all the zines made at workshops etc. go into the library (if participants want them to!) because it makes other people feel like they have ownership of that space too. There’s no point superficially engaging with zines – or at least, it’s your loss if you do (but hopefully, maybe, a student will still gain something from it.) Zines can be made in an academic setting, if you like, but that’s not where they belong and you lose some of the cool things about them if they become an assignment or a project. (I’ve written a bit about my conflicted feelings about zines in academia here.)

Zines give some great alternative routes for engagement – just generally, and in this context – and I’d strongly advocate for thinking about collaborative projects, where students, and staff, document for themselves, this is an exceptional time, and now’s the chance to start recording that. This doesn’t have to be in the form of a zine, but zines can be a starting off point for considering how and why we want to document things for ourselves, and ways to facilitate that.

OK FINALLY, because like all my blogs this has turned into something of a ramble, what I value about zines is that you send them out into the world without a measure of engagement as success/failure. There’s not always a feedback loop. I don’t know how helpful that is within a setting where things often need to measurable, but I think it’s worth considering if you’re thinking about bringing zines into an educational or institutional setting. As soon as you try and measure a zine, contain it, grade it, own it, it loses something of it’s fundamental zine-ness.

As a zine maker, you may never know whether a zine you’ve made has had any impact on anyone, you just have to sort of reach out and have faith.

The front page of a perzine. It is made on blue lined paper, turned on its side. It has a small pink post it note on the front with 'Reach out and Touch Faith' written by hand, and 'a perzine' printed beneath and cut and paste.

Ok Lastly, I was asked about upcoming events when I was talking to Think Positive and failed to intelligently name any! I might add more to this list, so if you’re looking for something zine-y to do please please check out (and if you know of anything hit me up!):

Glasgow Zine Fest Online Programme – THIS WEEKEND (15th – 17th). Glasgow Zine fest is a big date in zinesters calendars, and they are also the folks behind the glasgow zine library. They’ve put on a great online programme here.

Wellcome Zine Club – the wellcome library in london has a great collection of zines focused on health. They’re running their zine club on instagram live the first wednesday of the month. Find them here.

Also! Super specific but if you’re into cycling (or just want to see what a virtual zine workshop can look like) check out my and my partner’s zine workshop for the virtual cycle touring festival on youtube:

And if you want to check out the Edinburgh Zine Library, you can view our website and online catalogue here, and our instagram here, and our twitter here.

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