Asylum Magazine Interview

The following is an interview between Jonathan Gadsby of the CMHNN and Helen Spandler, part of the editorial collective of Asylum Magazine, an affordable quarterly magazine that is packed with articles about critical mental health. There is simply no other magazine like it in the UK and it feels like it has an increasingly important contribution to critical thinking about mental health. True to the form of the magazine, Helen’s answers contain lots of pointers to other organisations doing interesting work, and links are provided.


JG: Asylum has just had its 30th anniversary. How did the magazine get started?

HS: Asylum magazine was launched in the spring of 1986. It cost 50p and was “Free to Inmates”. The mag was inspired by the anti-psychiatry movement, the psychiatric survivors movement and the Italian democratic psychiatric movement.  A small group of professionals, academics and survivors were galvanised into action by a group of mental health workers who visited the UK as kind of ‘missionaries’ from the Italian movement. Over here, the old asylums were closing down and Community Care was the big thing.  People were looking for inspiration to turn this into an opportunity to do things differently, rather than it being just a Thatcherite cost-cutting exercise. The situation is not that dissimilar to what’s happening now, with austerity and the rise of ‘recovery’ (instead of community care).  The phrase ‘be careful what you wish for’ springs to mind!  But this situation is replete with perils and possibilities. The magazine got started to have a genuine debate about what was happening in mental health and to give a voice to those who aren’t usually heard. This is just as important now, as it was then.

JG: On the front of the magazine it says it is for ‘democratic psychiatry’. What does that mean? 

HS: The term was taken directly from the Italian movement which inspired the magazine. We’ve had many debates over the years about its continuing relevance. Some people, especially those influenced by anti-psychiatry, including the late Thomas Szasz, thought democratic psychiatry was an oxymoron.  I think this is partly true.  I guess we hope for something better – that, whatever we call it, we need an organised system to support those of us in distress. But we believe it needs to be organized more democratically, with people who are most affected at its heart. I see this as aspirational, something that we need to be always working towards.  How this is achieved, and what it might look like, should be open to continual debate.

Personally, I’ve always been inspired by therapeutic communities, but this certainly isn’t shared by everyone involved in the magazine, and they are not without criticism. I’ve also wanted to see Soteria-like developments in the UK and more survivor led crisis houses like the one in Leeds I’m quietly optimistic about initiatives like Open Dialogue and Peer Support Open Dialogue  But, again, these are all up for discussion and critique.  There is no panacea.  To borrow a term from the excellent new survivor led anthology we’re still searching!  Franco Basaglia used to say that we should avoid creating golden cages and instead transform society to truly include madness.

Oh yes, we had quiz a few years ago about your question. See for various answers!

JG: The last edition contained a short article about ‘mental health stigma’ that I think was the best thing I have ever read about it! Looking back over 30 years, are there any issues or articles that stand out as being especially important? Why? 

HS: That’s a big question!  There have been some very popular special issues over the years. Off the top of my head, our first issue which was devoted to an exclusive interview with Ronnie Laing; the issue edited by the group Women at the Margins on ‘Bullshit Psychiatric Diagnosis’ (BPD); and the special issue on Anti-capitalism and Mental health, inspired by the Occupy movement – all proved very popular.  Our recent 30 year anniversary edition also sold out fast

Over the years we’ve published some important pieces from the early mental patients and survivor movement, such as CAPO (the Campaign Against Psychiatric Oppression) and PROMPT (Protection of the Rights of Mental Patients in Treatment) in the early 1980s; various protests, such as the Kiss It campaign against forced treatment in the 1990’s; and more recent projects like the Survivors History Group and Recovery in the Bin. We’ve also featured whistleblowing stories that other people wouldn’t publish.  I’m often struck by some of the cartoons, comics, stories and poems we’ve published over the years.  These are able communicate experiences in a really powerful way that are hard to convey through the usual clinical, academic or research type formats.

There really are some hidden gems in our back catalogue. We’ve just deposited a full collection in the Wellcome Trust library in London, Euston.  So it’s available for people to consult.  One day I’d like to put together an edited collection featuring some of the best bits of the magazine over the years.  I’d be interested to know what other people think are the highlights.

JG: How did you become involved and what does the magazine mean to you personally?

HS: I came across the magazine many years ago in a radical bookshop (remember them?).  I got involved through the late Alec Jenner and Tim Kendall who helped produce the magazine in the early days (along with Phil Virden and Lin Bigwood who are still involved today). They had just set up a really interesting Masters course which ran briefly in Sheffield in the 1990’s called Psychiatry, Philosophy and Society.  I took along my undergraduate essay on the German Socialist Patients Collective (SPK) to the course interview and, a week later, Alec wrote to me saying they’d like to publish it in the magazine. This meant a lot to me and I’ve always wanted to offer similar opportunities like this to people. When I went to Sheffield I started to get involved in the magazine and I’ve been involved, in one way or another, for about 20 years. I know from personal experience how fraught with tension, contestation and difficulty the mental health field is. That there are no easy answers.  I feel strongly that we need spaces where these can be openly discussed, and where difficult and unpopular views can be aired and thought about.  This is very much an ongoing struggle and an unfinished project for me.

JG: What is next for Asylum?

HS: I’m currently putting together the next issue of the magazine which will be a special themed edition on Mad Studies. I’m really excited about the development of new Mad centred knowledge and practice.  I was hugely inspired by the recent Mad Studies stream at the Lancaster Disability Studies conference and wanted to share some of the new ideas and thinking that were emerging there. We’ve had so many fantastic submissions we’re having to do this over two issues. We also have some superb creative writing and poetry about to be published in the new year. In addition, next June 2017 we are holding an event in Manchester called Action and Reaction that is low cost and free to subscribers.   Hopefully this will be an opportunity for Asylum readers and supporters to connect up and re-galvanise.

One of our main struggles at the moment is keeping afloat. I truly believe the magazine is better than ever, but people don’t seem to buy magazines anymore, and we’ve really felt the impact of losing so many radical bookshops.  We also need to get libraries and organisation to subscribe. So if people can get their mental health trusts or University libraries to subscribe it would help us enormously. It’s a great resource for staff, students and service users alike. With the demise of the Mind magazine OPENMIND a few years ago, it really is the magazine for radical mental health.  Please consider contributing, subscribing or helping us distribute the magazine. You can contact us at:

JG: Thank you very much. Here’s to the magazine’s next 30 years!

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