7 Zines That Helped People Work through Mental Health Issues
For the uninitiated, a “zine” is often defined as a self-published, small-circulation magazine that documents the happenings of a subculture or a niche topic. But in practice, the art of the zine is governed by “non-rules.” A zine can consist of 40 pages, or just one. It can be entirely made up of pictures or feature no pictures at all. It can make sense, but it doesn’t have to.
During the 1980s, zine-making often involved taking a pile of collages, poems, essays, images, or doodles; lining them up, just so, over the glass of a Xerox machine; then making copies, and stapling together a series of printed pages like this. Copies might be shared with friends or left in a stack at a local record store. Today, publishing a zine can be as simple as one person creating a web page or as elaborate as a small editorial team collaborating on a printed periodical with a cover star. But the non-rules haven’t changed: If you make it and publish it yourself, and it has text, images, or both, you can probably call it a zine.
Perhaps because of this flexibility, artists and other creatives have found in zines a judgment-free space, and for some, it’s a prime medium for discussing serious, personal issues, like mental health. This point was made late last month when an art exhibition in India, organized by one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, Dr. Vikram Patel, illustrated how zines can help break down the stigma surrounding mental health. To explore the topic further, we share below seven examples of such zines, with insights from their creators on how these creative projects helped them navigate their own experiences with mental health.
For Girls Who Cry Often (2016)
Lina Wu, a Toronto-based artist and illustrator, collected stories and testimonies from over 20 contributors to create the 40-page zine For Girls Who Cry Often. “It’s a nice feeling to be a part of something bigger,” she said of the collaborative creation process.
For the zine, Wu focused on exploring mental health through a femme lens and let her own experiences inform her process. “For much of my life, I noticed that ‘getting emotional’ was seen as a girly or feminine thing—meaning it is often dismissed as dramatic and frivolous,” she explained.
Wu created a dreamy pink atmosphere to backdrop the contributors’ candid and sometimes dark confessions. The zine’s adolescent tone is a nod to the fanzines of the 1990s that gave teenage girls a voice. In fact, Wu points out that zines are accessible art objects because people can easily share and buy them (readers buying copies of For Girls Who Cry Often are encouraged to pay what they can afford).
An interdisciplinary artist, Wu experiments with poetry, illustrations, comics, photography, and design in her zines. And while she doesn’t bring For Girls Who Cry Often to zine fairs anymore, she noted that making it has helped her grow as an artist.
Fuck This Life (2005–present)
Today, Dave Sander (a.k.a. “Weirdo Dave”) is a visual artist known for collaborations with Vans and Supreme. But back in 2005, Sander was cramming newspaper and magazine clippings into his desk drawer almost out of habit. “After I got a lot,” Sander said, “I thought it would be time to make a zine.”
Flipping through the pages of any issue of Fuck This Life is like witnessing the end-of-life montage people describe after a near-death experience. For Sander, zine-making can be an aggressively cathartic process: “You get to kill shit in your own way,” he offered.
Fuck This Life is a stream-of-consciousness compilation of found imagery—like the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb or porn stars mid-orgasm—the result of Sander channeling his pain to “create a beautiful, loud, brutal fantasyland.” He refers to the zine as his deepest, darkest best friend. “It was my reason for living, so I guess it saved me,” he said.
Grief Poems (2017)
Chloe Zelkha describes her father’s death as a “sudden, heartbreaking shock.” Within months, she’d printed out a collection of poems she found in books or discovered through teachers and grieving groups, then spread them out on her kitchen table. There, the Berkeley-based Zelkha began painting onto the pages, cranking out one after another in succession, without drafting or revising. As she found more poems, she created more pages. The result was Grief Poems, a 26-page exercise in letting go.
Zelkha’s introduction to zines was Project NIA’s The Prison Industrial Complex Is… (2010–11), a straightforward explainer zine with minimal text and simple black-and-white illustrations. She sees zines are an inherently raw medium. “That permission that’s kind of baked into the form,” she said, “is liberating.”
Poems by everyone from Kobayashi Issa to W.S. Merwin are coated in Zelkha’s uninhibited brushstrokes. She compared her process with child’s play or dreaming: “If you watch a kid play on their own for long enough, you’ll see lots of fears, feelings, ideas eeking their way into their game, and then transforming in real time. Or when we dream, and different people, places, concerns visit us in weird ways.”
Identity Crisis (2017)
Librarian–slash–zine-maker Poliana Irizarry is probably better known for their autobiographical black-and-white zines, like My Left Foot (2016) and Training Wheels (2013). But with Identity Crisis, the San Jose–based artist seemed the most vulnerable they’ve ever been. “My abuela suffered many miscarriages at the hands of American doctors, and her surviving offspring also struggle with reproductive issues,” Irizarry wrote. “Many Puerto Ricans do.”
Before the birth control pill was approved by the FDA in 1960, nearly 1,500 Puerto Rican women were unknowingly part of one of the earliest human trials for the pill. Between the 1930s and ’70s, nearly one-third of Puerto Rico’s female population of childbearing age had undergone “the operation,” often without being properly educated on its effects.
Irizarry made Identity Crisis,their first full-color art zine,during a South Bay DIY Zine Collective workshop. Personal and family histories intersect across fragmented pictures of succulents and Southwestern landscapes in a half-prose, half-verse journey through Irizarry’s identity. In just a few pages, Irizarry wrestles with intergenerational trauma and their own post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Irizarry speaks directly to their oppressors, defiant and resolute: “I live in spite of you.”
Shit I Made When I Was Sad (a.k.a. sad zine)(2018)
It started when Swedish friends Malin Rantzer and Anna Persmark were showing each other drawings and writing in journals they’d made while they were feeling low. “I noticed that some of the stuff we’d drawn resembled the other’s drawing,” Malin remembered, “and I think at that point we realized we should make a zine about being sad.” Rantzer turned to social media and put out a “swenglish/svengelska” (Swedish-English) call for submissions.
The then–Sweden-based duo (Persmark has since relocated to Portland, Oregon) made sad zine by cutting out and taping or pasting their artworks onto new pages, then scanning them and folding them into a booklet. Persmark sees zine-making as one of the most intimate ways of sharing her feelings; she goes out in person to share copies with her community.
“Even if all the submitters did not know each other,” Malin explained, “they were all friends’ friends or friends’ friends’ friends, and maybe that also can contribute to an atmosphere where it is safe to be vulnerable.” While making the individual works helped them heal, Persmack noted that the process of compiling the zine proved to be revelatory: “Sadness is both intensely personal and universal,” she said.
Sula Collective Issue 3: Mental Health (2015)
Sula Collective calls itself an online “[maga]zine for and by people of colour.” Initially an exclusively online zine—different from a blog in name and ethos—it reflected its Gen-Y creators and their new ideas of what a zine could be. It’s one of the more visible new zines, among many, with the purpose of turning an online network into an IRL community. Ever since they founded it in 2015, co-creators Kassandra Piñero and Sophia Yuet See knew they wanted to dedicate an issue to mental health.
Sula Collective Issue 3: Mental Health sheds light on how teenagers of color navigate their parents’ more conservative understanding of mental health issues. “We wanted to discuss the things we kept hidden from our parents or couldn’t talk about with friends,” Piñero and Yuet See explained.
The issue was published in November 2015 and serves as a record of how today’s young artists are taking intersectional approaches to dealing with mental health issues. For example, Oyinda, a then–16-year-old Nigerian girl living in London, submitted a color-coded collage of self-portraits and textures called An Emotional Response to Colours. The literary submissions are paired with original artworks, sourced from Sula Collective’ssubmissions inbox, which range from digital art to watercolors. When asked about what makes zines a unique medium, Piñero and Yuet See answered, simply, “control.”
Shrinks: A Retrospective (2018)
Shrinks is part of Karla Keffer’s zine series “The Real Ramona,” where she discusses being diagnosed with and treated for PTSD after almost 30 years in therapy. The Mississippi-based artist found a sense of direction for her work, and Shrinks in particular, through learning about the Satanic Panic of the 1980s.
This phenomenon (which gave daytime television hosts the ratings of their dreams) involved psychologists across America fueling a nationwide hysteria by diagnosing patients with satanic ritual abuse (SRA) and sending them off to tough-love camps.
“Shrinks are human and fallible,” Keffer explained. “I had put a great deal of trust in their infallibility.” In Shrinks, Keffer created profiles of every therapist she’s ever had—like Julie the gaslighter and Jill the racist. Survivors of abuse are often—and paradoxically—burdened with the task of seeing through the abuse and saving themselves. “One of the things I found difficult was sorting out what had happened with each therapist—like, did she/he really say that outlandish thing?” Keffer recalled.
So much of zine-making is about reclaiming—reclaiming the freedom of expression, reclaiming space, reclaiming the past. And, as Keffer put it, “you’ve made your own book, which is not something you experience when you’re writing short stories and sending them to lit mags.” If any one thing can define zines as a medium, it’s the unbridled control it gives artists.
Michelle Santiago Cortés