Written by Alice Peacock
Would you share your deepest, darkest secrets online for strangers to see? Hundreds of people are entrusting The Secret Keepers Instagram account with their most private thoughts. Stylist meets the women behind the project.
“Tell us a secret.”
Alex Cameron types out the words in an Instagram story and hits post, inviting her followers to send in their deepest and most confidential secrets. She waits for the inevitable flurry of messages.
For the past two months, hundreds of people – mostly women – have sent Cameron messages detailing their intimate thoughts, deepest fears and private joys. The revelations cover myriad topics ranging from relationships and sexuality to motherhood and mental health, to name just a few.
The identity of senders posting to The Secret Keepers Instagram account is protected, and followers are invited to respond to the confessions sharing solidarity, reassurance or words of advice.
One woman opens up about being pregnant and “terrified” after an early miscarriage last year. Another secret is from a 24-year-old who discovered their dad was having an affair at 14 and has “never told anyone”.
“Keeping the secrets you’re too afraid to share – and helping people feel less alone,” is how The Secret Keepers describes itself. It was created by Olivia Petter, a journalist, podcaster and author of Millennial Love, and Cameron, a still life photographer who has shot the likes of Dolly Alderton and Emma Dabiri.
The pair had followed each other online for some time, but only properly became acquainted when Petter messaged Cameron about creating the account after seeing her trial the concept on her own Instagram.
“When Olivia suggested the page I immediately thought how well it would suit a separate Instagram account of its own because then we could share people’s responses,” Cameron tells Stylist. “I said, ‘If you want to help, then let’s do it.’”
The aim, says Cameron, is to provide a platform where people can get any thought, issue or secret that’s bothering them (as well as joyful secrets they’re unable to share) off their chest without fear of judgment or repercussion.
“People you know will be there when you’re going through a hard time, but that doesn’t save them from judgment because that’s human nature,” says Cameron. “Opening up to strangers is kind of like seeing a therapist. It’s a bit of neutral ground where you can be more open.”
Cameron selects several dozen messages from the hundreds that are sent in before Petter curates them into Instagram carousels to post daily over the course of the following month, pairing secrets with a handful of responses.
The secrets are layered on top of a piece of Cameron’s photography relating to the confession, making the page both visually and emotionally engaging.
The woman concerned about her pregnancy is promised by one responder who has “been there” that things will “get easier as the pregnancy progresses”.
Another stranger whose own dad’s affair spanned 20 years, encourages the person keeping their father’s infidelity secret to confront him, “as hard as that may seem”.
Another says they discovered their dad’s affair around the same age. “I told my mum, it took her a few years, but it set her free,” they added.
The concept of The Secret Keepers draws parallels to other anonymous advice and confession platforms, from traditional agony aunt columns to online spaces like PostSecret, a project started by Frank Warren back in 2005. Warren encourages people to anonymously mail in postcards containing their “secrets”, and in recent years has developed an Instagram page for the project where he posts a few of the secrets each Sunday.
Warren’s posts draw dozens of comments from followers. But The Secret Keepers separates itself from these other platforms by creating a sense of conversation between the secret holders and followers responding with advice.
For Petter, building this feeling of community and subsequently tackling loneliness was the goal of the page. “Our hope is that if someone shares something with us and they see they’re not the only one experiencing it, it will lift them and make them feel less lonely,” she tells Stylist. “I think loneliness is something that has definitely been exacerbated by the pandemic.”
Acknowledging the platform is a balm rather than a cure, Petter hopes by reminding people they aren’t alone, the account may prompt people to open up to someone in their life or find a therapist to speak to.
“It’s that initial hurdle that can feel really, really overwhelming,” says Petter. “It’s also about admitting to yourself that this is something you’re going through and validating your own experience. Once you’re past that first step, then hopefully people can talk about things more.”
Vasia Toxavidi, a BACP-registered psychotherapist specialising in relationships, sees the parallels the platform has with her own profession. While it may not provide the same benefits as speaking to a therapist or a loved one, she says airing something that’s burdening us in a safe space can be really helpful.
“Being vulnerable in front of another person creates a completely different context from just writing something,” Toxavidi tells Stylist. “But, for some people, this is much easier and it’s better to give opportunities to help people to open up in any way they can.”
It is key, Toxavidi says, that both the secrets and the responses are appropriately moderated, to avoid damaging messages or triggering confessions.
It’s a responsibility both Petter and Cameron are “highly aware” of. While Petter says they try to share a mix of both secrets and responses, the pair steer away from darker revelations, not wanting the page to seem hopeless.
Secrets related to deep depression or suicide are the only messages the pair will respond to directly, sending helpline numbers.
“Alex and I aren’t psychologists, we aren’t therapists,” says Petter. “So I think there are some things we wouldn’t want to touch or go into. It’s a balance.”
Occasionally, the messages flooding into The Secret Keepers’ page include those saying, “Thank you, you’ve helped me so much” or “You have really changed my perspective on this.” For Petter, these messages prove the page’s worth: “Ultimately, we just want to do a nice thing and help other people.”
If you are struggling with your mental health you can ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer here.
For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email [email protected].
Images: Getty, @the_secretkeepers
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