Mental health, for better or worse, seems to something of a hot topic for indie mags and general interest titles alike. There’s mental health fanzine Do What You Want, by food writer Ruby Tandoph and her partner Leah Pritchard, “mind culture magazine” magazine NOUS, “culture makers” mental health magazine, Anxy, art and literature mental health journal Doll Hospital, and Torchlight, the magazine chronicling the breakdown and recovery of writer and editor Kevin Braddock.
But as an apparent magazine “trend”, mental health is fraught with danger in a way that, say, food or cats aren’t. While there’s the potential for magazines to open up discourse, challenge clichés, give sufferers and survivors a voice, and even drive a certain mental health pride; could they also be in danger of romanticizing mental health problems, or even excusing or glamourizing unhealthy behaviors?
At their best, mental health magazines amplify the voices of sufferers and survivors and help tackle stigma. Indhira Rojas, founder and creative director of Anxy says the magazine aims to “present a counter-narrative to the way mental health is normally portrayed in the media.
“It gets presented in very medical or academic ways, which can feel disempowering or stigmatizing,” she says. “But for us, dealing with mental health isn’t just about navigating a diagnosis or finding a solution to particular issues. It’s also about emotions, perspectives, and perceptions, and processing everything that comes along with that. We believe it’s the experiences that people share—how they talk about navigating difficulties in life—that have the most power.”
Braddock has a similar message with his magazine Torchlight. “The central message is that it’s okay to ask for help when you’re suffering, and that there are ways to recover from and live with problems such as depression and anxiety,” he says. Having focused on his own story for issue one, (which sold out in a week), it appears from Torchlight’s crowdfunding campaign that issue two will open up to include other people’s recovery experiences.
Promoting self-care is another central tenet of this burgeoning print mini-genre. So you might find features called ‘How to keep your brain together when you’re fat’ or a Q&A on the benefits of therapy (Do What You Want), anger management tips (Anxy) or an exploration of positive self talk (New Philosopher). Torchlight even comes with a pack of Practice Cards, a collection of actions, physical practices, ideas, and sayings that Braddock found helpful in his recovery.
New Philosopher and Womankind, both of which regularly examine mental health issues, take a more scientific approach through sharing the latest thinking and research on mental health. Antonia Case, editorial director of New Philosopher and editor of Womankind, says: “We tend to tackle mental health from a sociological standpoint in that we rarely blame the individual, instead we look at people’s mental health in relation to influences such as technology, the media or consumerism.”
With one in five Americans and one in four Brits likely to suffer mental ill health every year, and with shame and stigma still a massive problem it’s positive that indie mags are tackling the topic. But it’s important this is done in a sensitive and responsible way. Case agrees that there is “a concern with writing too much about mental health in the media, particularly if it brings issues to people’s attention that they wouldn’t normally think about.” She continues, “I think it’s important that magazines treat mental health as a temporary ailment rather than a permanent impediment. Most people who suffer a mental illness do recover.” Lisa Lorenz of NOUS agrees: “Talking about stigma can both raise awareness about discrimination and enhance a feeling of alienation. It’s a thin line.”
There’s also a thin line between promoting pride in sufferers and survivors and glamourizing mental ill health. Sometimes these magazines feel so beautiful you question whether you are reading to be informed or to be entertained. Do What You Want’s cute look and feel does a great job of making the subject feel accessible, and it cleverly uses illustration to communicate feelings and experiences that are hard to verbalize. But there’s sometimes a disconnect between enjoying pretty layouts and reading about some harrowing mental experience.
Likewise the focus on self-care is positive, but it’s important magazines don’t place sole responsibility for their illness on sufferers.
When unhealthy working practices are rife, we mustn’t let employers off the hook. When societal norms could be seen to promote ill health (shout out to the patriarchy, structural racism, consumerism, the class system, and so on!) and access to mental health treatment is inadequate, we shouldn’t let society or our governments off the hook. As Rojas says, “right now the topic’s usually framed through the lens of self-care, which is lovely to see and very necessary. That said, we would like to see a world in which we take steps beyond open discussions to transforming our social norms.”
And while it’s to be applauded that these titles are igniting debate and driving conversations, not all mental illnesses get equal billing. In the magazines I read for this piece articles on depression and anxiety vastly outnumbered those on less “socially acceptable” disorders like bipolar affective disorder or schizophrenia. Rather than challenging taboos, could these mags perpetuate them by focusing on dinner party-friendly mental illnesses at the expense of others? When I put this to Roja she countered that “these illnesses are not getting intentionally overlooked, we are just learning about how to talk about them more openly. To us there is a wide spectrum of mental health and yes some are more difficult to talk about, but it’s not because they are less palatable; it’s because they’re more complex.”
Aside from the risk of perpetuating rather than challenging taboos, could mag makers even put vulnerable readers and contributors at risk? When your magazine exists to share difficult stories, how can you be sure a writer won’t regret sharing theirs, or a reader won’t be dangerously triggered? This is one reason why Anxy’s masthead includes a Mental Health Advisory Board. Roja says, “we know we’re not professional psychologists or therapists, and so we knew we needed the advice of experts and advocates who can really keep us in check. They’ve advised us throughout conception and production and really bought that extra level to our work.” Braddock says,
“The tension in writing, making and publishing from these experiences is between the need to talk honestly about these very difficult and complex issues, at the same time as never sensationalising or fetishizing them.
“One of the ideas of Torchlight System is to assist others in telling and making pubic their stories, which can be a therapeutic or cathartic process in itself, but only when people are ready to do so.”
While the dream of transforming social norms may be some way off, indie mag land’s fascination with mental health is generating new directions in magazine design. As the topic influences design decisions, boundaries are being pushed and nuances explored. Braddock describes Torchlight, for example, as being different to most magazines in that it is a single linear narrative, yet at the same time“different to a book because it has sections, photos, and paintings in it. I worked with Berlin-based designer Enver Hadzijaj, and we wanted to make something combining visual storytelling with textual narrative.”
Hadzijaj and Braddock took inspiration from books like John Berger’s Ways Of Seeing designed by Richard Hollis, Marshall McLuHan’s The Medium is the Massage, designed by Quentin Fiore, and Patricia Ellen Ricci’s design for John Powell’s Why Am I Afraid To Tell You Who I Am. Over at New Philosopher and Womankind, their approach to mental health features has seen them push to unite editorial and visual ideas, and challenge the usual clichéd visual representation of mental health issues.
For Anxy, the sensitive nature of their subject matter has given new weight to considerations of pacing. Rojas says, “as designers, we’re highly aware of our power to elicit strong emotions or responses. And it’s something we think about in the design of Anxy. When do we need to slow down the reader and give them space to consider something? In contrast, when do we need to create an experience that might feel more uncomfortable and striking to emphasize a particular point?”
At Riso-printed NOUS, Lisa Lorenz has been keen to pay homage to zine culture with her design. She says, “LGBTQI+ feminist, punk communities, and people of color had picked up topics related to mental health in their DIY publications long before it became more talked about. The foundation of our design comes from that zine culture, but with more structure and space for the words and visuals to breathe.”
The topic of mental health is proving a rich creative territory for magazine publishing, but a thorny one too. As they navigate their way through, it’s crucial mag makers don’t just harvest this ground, but replenish it too.
They are already giving survivors and sufferers a platform, challenging clichés and taboos, and offering support, solidarity, and tips on self-care, and that’s to be commended. Do What You Want even donates all profits to mental health charities. But as these magazines mature I’d love to see them go further and get more involved in campaigning, working more closely with mental health charities and advocacy groups. This way they can become a force for change, not just on a reader-by-reader basis, but for society as a whole.