Nicknames can say a lot about a person. Some are common, some unique, some inside jokes, and some self-explanatory. For years, I’ve been known as “The Most Trusted Stranger in America.” Every year, I receive thousands of secrets from strangers worldwide: from topics as serious as affairs and proposals to something as simple as accidentally denting the hood of your car. Now, I want to share how I did it, and why it matters in the context of mental health.
PostSecret is a community art project I started out-of-the-blue in Washington, D.C. many years ago. I printed thousands of postcards, handed them out in the streets, invited people to write down a secret they had never told anyone before, decorate the card, and then mail it to my home. I was shocked when the postcards started to show up. I was even more surprised that after scanning the secrets and sharing them online, they went viral. All of a sudden, my small community project was reaching hundreds of thousands of people every day. Before I knew it, people were making their own postcards, sending me secrets from California, Texas, Rome, Stockholm, Mexico City, Abu Dhabi—everywhere.
These secrets were as widely varied as you can imagine. People were anonymously sharing with me details about their marriages, kids, career, friends, and much more. It turns out, people don’t keep secrets because they don’t want to share what they’re hiding. They want nothing more than to get it off their chest. Rather, they keep secrets to avoid perceived shame or judgment. It’s an illusion that our secrets separate us like walls, they are really bridges connecting us with others and our deeper self. PostSecret, by its very nature, eliminated the fear of judgment and opened people around the world up to a new kind of community.
Now that I had this viral, growing project in my hands, the question was: How do I use this to benefit others? Some of the secrets shared with me were comical or inspiring, but many were also painful and full of shame. That’s when I first saw the connection my project could have to mental health. Before I founded PostSecret, I was a volunteer on the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. I listened to callers share their deepest secrets during the darkest hours of the night. Now, I try to use PostSecret as a tool to de-stigmatize hard conversations about our struggles with loneliness, mental health, or trauma. I’ve learned that sharing these secrets doesn’t solve the problem being presented completely, but it can provide so much relief to know you’re not alone with your burdens. One secret sender even wrote about their own experience reading about others’ lives, saying, “Dear Frank, How I wish I could hug everyone and tell them that it’s ok. It’s ok to be scared and angry and hurt and selfish. It’s part of being human.” PostSecret created a community of caring, and trust, despite also being a community of anonymity.
The importance of community has been especially prevalent during the pandemic when millions have been left feeling more isolated than ever before. As we all know, it can be hard to form connections behind a screen, and even harder to maintain existing relationships without consistent face-to-face interaction. However, that does not mean all hope is lost. Just because relationships require more effort today than before, doesn’t mean they’re impossible. We can continue to share, be vulnerable, and uplift each other during hard times. Sharing difficult feelings and experiences can be hard, but in the end, as I’ve seen over the past seventeen years, it is beyond worth it.
And now, we have a special way for those passionate about PostSecret to help change the conversation about mental health. For the rest of December, PostSecret will be matching any donations Patreon subscribers make to Active Minds to double their life-changing work on young adult mental health. Sign-up to become a Patreon subscriber to PostSecret here, and then visit the Active Minds website to make your gift to support mental health work in schools, workplaces, and communities nationwide.