COVID-19, Mental Health, and Hashtag Ethnography

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Author: Yael Kushnir is a 3rd year BA student in the School of Behavioral Sciences at the Academic College of Tel Aviv – Jaffa. This essay is part of her larger research project for the Digital Ethnography Seminar, taught and supervised by Dr Regev Nathansohn.

Fieldsite: Instagram

The coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis has compelled entire populations to remain inside their homes and maintain social distancing. While such restrictions enable our communities to preserve physical health, what about the mental aspect of our wellbeing? The coronavirus pandemic has triggered anxiety and other emotional difficulties in many of us, and the official lockdown and social distancing measures imposed in response to the pandemic have made it challenging to maintain a physically active routine and mental wellness. The most basic of human needs—spending time with friends and family—has become a punishable offence. The need to communicate, growing ever more acute in light of the personal difficulties experienced during this period, has been satisfied in social networks. These have gained an even greater prominence during the pandemic, by virtue of enabling social exchanges while complying with health safety regulations.

The subject of this study is the use of hashtags related to mental health on Instagram during the coronavirus pandemic, using the netnography research methodology. The hashtag, an integral part of social media today, is defined as a popular tag made up of a combination of words starting with the hashtag symbol (#), which serves as an index for keywords or categories on social media (Peng et al., 2019). Users make extensive use of hashtags in their posts as a hashtag categorizes posts, facilitating their discovery by other users; because they extend post-exposure on other users’ feeds; and because they enable people the world over to communicate on topics of mutual interest.

One social platform in which hashtags are prevalent is Instagram. Typically, Instagram users create content consisting of visual imagery and optional accompanying text, which may include hashtags. These indicate the realm of content to which the users wish to link their post. Other users can respond to a post by tapping or clicking a heart icon and by writing comments. The coronavirus pandemic’s massive impact on current affairs globally has led many Instagram users to link the content of their posts to the crisis, by adding COVID-19-related hashtags to them.

This study focuses on the following hashtags, which are related to the connection between coronavirus and mental health, and which have become the subjects of extensive discussions on Instagram (the figures in parentheses indicate the number of posts as of May 30, 2020):

  • #coronadepression (1,797)
  • #coviddepression (330)
  • #coronaanxiety (3,791)
  • #covidanxiety (3,701)
  • #covidmentalhealth (3,003)

In this essay, I analyze sample posts with these hashtags through the following prisms: The relation between the visual content and the text; recurring themes in user comments; different types of users sharing content on social media; and user reflexivity vis-à-vis social media as a communication platform. To provide a full purview of the research field, I show one of the public posts listed as a “top post” for the hashtag #coviddepression as an example. The following is a screen capture showing the post:

One of the ‘top posts’ for the #coviddepression hashtag, from user fitmom.nycole in the US. The original photo can be found at https://www.instagram.com/p/B_AlBaFALHV/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

The post was published on April 15, 2020, by a user who specified her location as New Jersey, U.S. The most conspicuous element here is the post’s visual part: A smiling woman, her head held high, standing outdoors. This is the post’s author; yet other posts she shares show friends or an environmental element, rather than herself. The image is accompanied by a description of emotional difficulty and negative feelings related to the pandemic and the health safety restrictions, particularly the stay-at-home orders in effect at the time. The post also includes hashtags that indicate the topics to which the user wanted to link her post, and has a thread of approximately 30 comments of varied content.

Image and text: Complementary or contradictory?

In the post above there is a marked contrast between the positive message arising from the image and the negative message conveyed by the accompanying text. Showing vulnerability on social media is not easy, so choosing a joyful, confident image can be interpreted as an attempt to mitigate the difficulty involved in exposing oneself at a vulnerable time, to create a balance between strength and weakness. Other posts exhibit different kinds of text-image relations. In posts where the image and text are compatible, in full or in part, we can assume that the image is intended to reinforce the text or vice versa. It is likewise safe to assume that some visual content is intended to conform with Instagram’s visual norms, rather than to give authentic expression to the user’s emotions and feelings.

Comment themes and user types

Analysis of the posts and comments linked to the hashtags reviewed reveals two main social practices: Sharing and support. These are related to two types of users—those who seek to help others, and those who seek help for themselves:

  1. Social media as a space for sharing vulnerability and emotional difficulties

Textual content linked to the reviewed hashtags relates to the following topics, all attesting to users’ vulnerability and to mental difficulty caused by the coronavirus crisis, and which read as a cry for help:

  • Sharing general emotional difficulties; for example, “Do you have Corona anxiety? I know I do,” and “This has been tough.”
  • Sharing specific difficulties arising from staying indoors and being physically restricted; for example, “I hate sitting inside it makes me feel sick, dark, and dreary,” and “it’s hard being cooped up indoors.”
  • Sharing specific difficulties arising from social distancing; such as “I actually miss other humans,” and “I need to be around people.”
  • Sharing deterioration into clinical mental illness; for example, “I can feel myself slipping into sadness,” “My current fear is that I may develop agoraphobia,” and “Such long isolation has brought back many of my grave deep mental health.”

It is evident that the coronavirus-related hashtags have created a space where users can legitimately share emotional difficulty with others, revealing a less glamorous aspect of life that is not commonly expressed on social media. According to Kotliar (2016), it is possible that candidness and the exposure of private information are products of the anonymity afforded by social media, the anonymity that maintains a certain distance between the user writing and those who are reading, enabling users to reveal intimate information about themselves. The “help-seeking” type of user seeks to find relief, support, and comfort on social media. Such users call for help either in their original posts or in the comments they make on other users’ posts, sometimes without any connection to the original post or to the user who posted it, for example: “My anxiety was extreme today this is so awful,” and “Too much worry and scare… it makes me feel helpless.”

  1. Social media as a support group

Reviewing comments on posts reveals a range of elements of a support group that forms gradually among comment writers. These include:

  • Expressions of empathy – “I’m with you girl,” “I feel you,” and “I hear you!!”
  • Encouragement – “Hang in there, this should all pass soon!”
  • Support – “You are a great mom!” and “It takes courage to talk about it.”
  • Giving hope – “dear people this virus crisis will pass.”
  • Normalization – “Anxiety hits every now and then these days,” “Being sad and being seriously depressed are two very different things,” “Mental health issues are normal, it’s okay not to be okay.”
  • Caring and concern – “How’s everyone doing today?” and “I want to meet all of you after all of this.”
  • Helpful tips – “How to protect your mental health during quarantine: Engage with the world but not too much – just read the news once a day.”

These comments express concern, caring, and solidarity, and are representative of the “helper-type” users, who view social media as a space where they can act as caretaker figures. Helpers support and encourage others in two ways:

  • By commenting on a post of a user who is expressing distress, with the intention of providing help – “You’ve got this! Keep your head up!”; “I feel you so! We are all in this together! Stay strong.”
  • By sharing an original post they had written with the intention of helping others – “If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273;” “Well over a month into this lockdown, just popping by to share a bunch of little things that are helping me stay sane…”

Users writing such content can clearly see others, show caring and a willingness to be there for them. Comments and posts of this kind often generate a thread of empathic and encouraging comments, forming a mutually supportive group for those individuals coping with mental issues during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Reflexivity and Social Media Perception

Analysis of the practices and user types indicates that in times of social distancing, social networks become increasingly important and offer an alternative to face-to-face human interactions. This is evident in the massive activity on social media during this period, in the numerous hashtags created, and in the social relations reflected in this text. The use of social media during the crisis is bringing to the fore the advantages of virtual communication channels, and it is evident that the users also maintain a more positive view of social networks at this time. This was actually discussed in one of the posts: “Social media is normally given a bad rap but in these circumstances, I think it’s allowing us to stay connected with each other.” In response to this statement, other users commented: “Internet and social media is such a blessing now,” “thankful for this online community,” and “I think we are very lucky to have social media/ technology to keep us connecting right now.” Within the context of the coronavirus crisis, the medium that is normally transparent to its users is taking centre stage in the discourse on social media.

The various pandemic-related hashtags have formed a global, comforting, and therapeutic space, hosting sensitive and intimate human experiences. This space provides emotional support in a global crisis and makes up for the absence of physical, face-to-face social interaction. The hardships and challenges of this period have led to solidarity among perfect strangers, driving them to help one another and create a wide network of support. As one comment reads, “We are all in this together, and together we are strong.”

Bibliography

Peng, M., Bian, Q., Zhang, Q., Gui, T., Fu, J., Zeng, L., & Huang, X. (2019, October). Model the Long-Term Post History for Hashtag Recommendation. In CCF International Conference on Natural Language Processing and Chinese Computing (pp. 596-608). Springer, Cham.

Kotliar, D. M. (2016). Depression narratives in blogs: A collaborative quest for coherence. Qualitative Health Research26(9), 1203-1215.