Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a condition characterised by a number of symptoms: emotional instability, disturbed patterns of thinking, impulsive behaviour and, often, intense but unstable relationships with others. It's estimated that around seven in every 1,000 people in the UK have BPD, although it remains to be one of the most misunderstood and stigmatised mental health conditions out there. Even a cursory search online will bring up misinformed threads and posts about how people with this disorder are “toxic”, “bad friends” or are unable to enjoy functioning relationships.
For those already dealing with a difficult mental health condition, the stigma can be incredibly distressing and isolating. It obviously helps to find others to chat to about living with BPD. On Instagram, the #BPD hashtag has long been used by people in search of support, community or even just light relief in the form of memes and funny posts that those with BPD can identify with.
Until recently, that is. Around the middle of November, users noticed that the hashtag had effectively been wiped. Those searching for #BPD are now greeted by a pop-up that reads: “Can we help? Posts with words or tags you’re searching for often encourage behaviour that can cause harm and even lead to death. If you’re going through something difficult, we’d like to help.”
You can click through to “show posts” on the pop-up, but Instagram only displays a limited number of accounts – just a handful out of a possible 1.3 million posts came up when VICE UK searched for #bpd. Another message from Instagram then states: “We’ve hidden posts from #BPD to protect our community from content that many encourage behaviour that can cause harm or even lead to death.”
Self-harm and suicidal impulses are common among people with borderline personality disorder, but Instagram has already blocked hashtags relating to those behaviours. Banning #BPD seems like an odd and confusing move, particularly when the hashtag relates to the condition itself, and is commonly used by people hoping to find information and support.
Chanté is 24 and often uses BPD meme accounts to help relieve stress and feel less alone with her diagnosis. “Rather than genuinely trying to help people with BPD, Instagram have decided we don’t fit with their aesthetic and this just adds to the heavy stigma that already exists,” she tells VICE UK. “Many people don't understand what BPD is.”
She continues: “We've seen that Instagram can be a platform used to educate people, as demonstrated by the Black Lives Matter movement. Why can it no longer provide a safe space for us, or be used as an awareness raising tool anymore? Instagram is essentially telling us that there’s fundamentally something wrong with who we are if we try to search BPD and immediately are ‘offered help’.’
The “help” that Instagram offers on its pop-up nudges users towards contacting a friend or someone you trust, contact details for four non-BPD specific mental health helplines and a list of three basic coping strategies, again non-BPD specific (“slow down in a crisis,” reads one. “Take care of yourself,” reads another).
For many though, the #BPD hashtag included more specific posts relating to their diagnosis – the kind of stuff not often found among more straightforward mental health services or groups.
“Yes, there are occasionally triggering posts, like with most tags for mental illnesses, but you usually see posts offering support or raising awareness,” says Tilly, 19, who was diagnosed with traits consistent with BPD a couple of months ago. “Many come to the hashtag to find people who are going through the same thing as them. The additional support of the BPD community can be a really important element within some peoples' recovery.”
Instagram has not yet banned longer hashtags such as #borderlinepersonalitydisorder or other variations, meaning that many posts are still available and large support and meme accounts can still reach audiences. But many view Instagram’s #BPD ban as a symbolic attack on sufferers, and a Change.org petition calling on the platform to reinstate the hashtag has already been signed by over 7,000 people.
Anna has over 24,000 followers on her @bpd_splitposting Instagram account. She posts mostly memes, and has created a community for those diagnosed with BPD.
“I think this is just another attempt at sweeping complex mental health issues under the rug, which only will serve to further perpetuate the stigma surrounding mental illness,” she says. “Instead of dealing with these issues head on by talking openly about them, society just wants to continue to pretend like we don’t exist.”
Instagram did not respond to requests for comment at the time of publication, but Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri announced on the 10th of November that Instagram had just rolled out new AI technology across the EU “to proactively find more harmful suicide and self-harm content and make it less visible”. The tech was already in use outside Europe, but was expanded to the region around the same time the #BPD hashtag disappeared.
Rosie Weatherley, information content manager at the mental health charity MIND, says that it's important that social media platforms remain safe for users by removing potentially triggering content. However, she says, “removing hashtags relating to specific mental health problems risks fuelling stigma and misunderstanding, making mental health a taboo subject”.
She continues: “The banning of hashtags prevents people from sharing their experiences online, or being able to search for content that could be useful, potentially preventing online peer support communities being made and removing support pathways entirely.”
The lack of understanding around BPD can be incredibly dangerous. It can stop people from accessing the treatment they need and leave them suffering in loneliness and shame. For many – like Chanté, Tilly and Anna – it feels as though wiping the BPD hashtag is only fuelling that misunderstanding.
*UPDATE 09/12/20: After publication, a representative of Instagram contacted VICE UK to say that the #bpd hashtag ban was not intentional. “We’re experiencing a bug where certain hashtags, including #bpd, are showing fewer posts than normal,” they say. “These hashtags aren’t blocked, and we’re working to restore posts to affected hashtags.”