What Our Secrets Can Tell Us

Frank Warren
Frank Warren

PostSecret is a community art project I started on a whim over a decade ago. I printed up a few thousand postcards, handed them out on the streets of Washington, DC, invited people to write down a secret they had never told anyone before, decorate the card, and then mail it to my home in Maryland (and yes, soliciting secrets from strangers feels as weird as it sounds). The first surprise was that artful confessions actually began arriving in my mailbox.

The second surprise came when I scanned and posted those anonymous confessions on the web to PostSecret.com, and the idea went viral. PostSecret.com was getting hundreds of thousands of visits every day. The third surprise happened after I passed out the last card and secrets continued to find their way to my door. People began sourcing and creating their own postcards. They arrived with postmarks not just from Washington, DC, but from California, Texas, Rome, Stockholm, Mexico City, Abu Dhabi—everywhere. What started out as a prank, turned into something that feels much more mysterious and profound today.

I’ve been called, “The Most Trusted Stranger in America”; you can see why by looking at this handful of extraordinary secrets, these are the kind of gifts people have been sharing with PostSecret, and the world, for over 16 years.

If you want to take a deeper dive into PostSecret here is a recent CBS Sunday Morning segment that focuses on the project. It also follows me as I travel to different colleges sharing the secrets and the transformative power of our stories. (Today, I am speaking virtually on campuses about Pandemic Secrets; our struggles, successes and strategies. For information about how to get your school on the virtual tour click here.)

The confessions I receive can generally be romantic, funny, poignant, or shocking. However, many today deal with mental wellness and the pandemic. Sometimes when we think we are keeping a secret, that secret is actually keeping us. The heaviest part of the burden might not be the secret but the stigma that grows around it.

Before I founded PostSecret, I was a volunteer on the National Suicide Prevention Hotline; listening to callers deepest secrets during the darkest hours of the night. Today, I try to use PostSecret as a tool to de-stigmatize uncomfortable conversations about our hidden struggles with loneliness, anxiety, or trauma. I have learned that when we feel alone with these conditions it compounds the burden. By telling our stories we discover that we are never alone with our secrets.

Secrets can feel like walls, but they are actually bridges. I’ve seen how courageous secrets can inspire people to share more of their story, become more accepting of themselves, and expand the empathy we have for others.

The PostSecret community has shown their support for mental wellness in two inspiring ways: by raising over $1,000,000 for suicide prevention nonprofits and by creating the most complete and comprehensive open source database for crisis hotlines and text lines in the world. This database offers a collection of current crisis lines searchable by location or topic to provide people in need with immediate help.

In addition to the PostSecret website, books and exhibits, I also travel to college campuses for PostSecret events. At these live performances I share the most extraordinary postcards from the PostSecret archives. I share a story about a secret trauma from my life and read secrets from audience members who filled out postcards before the show.

With the shelter-at-home crisis, all upcoming live events have been cancelled, but the need to express our secrets and feelings has multiplied. According to an ABC News article, “the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration saw an 891% increase in call volume compared to a year earlier.” With this greater need to share I am touring schools virtually, sometimes hosting interactive presentations in different states on the same day.

As this temporary but challenging pandemic continues the secrets continue to arrive at my home, daily reminders that we may all be experiencing the crisis differently, but we are all going through it together.