In a roundabout way, hashtags are how I ended up founding Shape the Sky. Around 2012, I had downloaded Instagram and started scrolling. I saw a youth posting about mental health concerns. Below the picture were all of the hashtags that they had connected to the picture. I knew the function of a hashtag, but I didn’t know the meaning of the ones they had posted, so I started clicking, and down the rabbit hole I went. I found more and more concerning behaviors posted on Instagram. I started learning the meanings of the mental health related hashtags. I scrolled through post after post to get an even better idea of what the mental health and hashtag culture was online. Then I began training other mental health professionals and parents on how to understand the mental health culture online.

Over the years, the mental health hashtags have evolved and are ever-changing. It’s difficult to keep up with all of the mental health hashtags as they are sometimes blocked on Instagram or other social media platforms, but when certain hashtags become blocked, others come to life to replace them.I wanted to give you a resource so that you can learn about hashtags and try to stay up-to-date with how they can be used. This is an easy way for you to learn the culture of social media and stay relevant when talking to youth about being a responsible user of technology.

Using hashtags as a directory can actually be traced by to the 1980s. If you recall the beginning of automated customer service systems, after choosing a number option for a connection, you would hit the # to finalize your decision. Thus, the birth of it being a directory function. The hashtag hit the web on the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) which was introduced in 1988; the IRC used it to create titles of channels.  They were finally introduced to Twitter in 2007 in the function you are most familiar with today. You can read more about this interesting history of the hashtag here.

For my purpose in discussing hashtags, they have two main functions. The first is the allow content you post to become searchable. For example, if you go on Instagram and search #shapethesky you will find all of the content that I have posted. I use the hashtag #shapethesky so that you can find all of my posts. You will find #shapethesky posts on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Tumblr. This function allows the creator of content to direct user searches to their posts. The second function is so that you can find content that interests you. I enjoy downhill mountain biking. If I want to find content on downhill mountain biking, I can search #DHLife on Instagram and find pictures/videos that are of interest to me. #Redbullrampage2018 will take me to content related to the last Red Bull Rampage race from 2018.

Mental health content is easy to find on Instagram. Instagram has been called out on the concerns over mental health content on its platform.  Trying to lock down concerning hashtags related to mental health may be helpful, but ultimately ineffective in the long-term. People struggling with mental health concerns, and posting them online will not stop because Instagram banned a few hashtags. The users will create new hashtags to mean the same thing.

One of the goals of Shape the Sky is to educate individuals on how to talk to youth about behaviors and the reason behind behaviors. Struggles with mental health will not be fixed by blocking hashtags. The causation- mental health struggles- for the behaviors will still be there. If Instagram was discontinued today, a new social media platform would arise tomorrow, and all of the mental health behaviors would move there.

Kids are curious. If they find a mental health post, they will see the hashtags in the post and click them to see what they mean. This is not how I want young people to learn about mental health; I want them to learn about red flags, talking about their feelings and where to go when they need help. But I want them to learn these things from their parents, teachers, and other adults in their lives. No one should learn about mental health definitions from a social media platform. They will not get the full picture or accurate information.

I’m sharing a list of a few hashtags that are related to mental health. Some of them are currently blocked on Instagram and some are not. With the ever-changing culture of hashtags, please be aware that these can and will quickly change. I will update this list once a year to keep you on top of current and past hashtags. Just because it’s currently blocked or not leading to mental health content does not mean that it won’t in the future. These hashtags will come and go.

If you use Instagram to try and search these hashtags, some of the content will be blocked. #suicide currently gets this message when searched: “Can we help? Posts with words or tags you’re searching for often encourage behavior that can cause harm and even lead to death. If you’re going through something difficult, we’d like to help.” There will then be three options to click: get support, see posts anyway, and cancel.  “Get support” takes you to the Instagram help page; options here are: talk to a friend, talk with a helpline volunteer, and get tips and support.

If you click on the “see posts anyway” for #suicide you get this message: “Can we help? We’ve hidden posts for #suicide to protect our community from content that may encourage behavior that can cause harm and even lead to death.”  You can try a hashtag hunt on other social media sites such as Twitter and Tumblr as well. Our website also supports the use of hashtags through the search bar. At the bottom of this article, you will find the hashtags that relate to this resource. If you click on one of them, you will find other articles and resources related to the topic.

Understanding the culture of hashtags and mental health will help you when you are teaching responsible use of technology. If a young person sees someone posting about depression, self-injury, or suicide, and they tell an adult, then they have taken a step to help that struggling person. Read Gabe’s story here to learn about an eleven-year-old that did the right thing when he saw a concerning post on Snapchat.

Below is a downloadable list of hashtags that have been used to refer to mental health topics.

~Ryan