DeKalb, IL — After being diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 13, Diana Chao realized the importance of advocating for mental health. As a first-generation Chinese American, she encountered the stigma attached to mental illness and wanted to fix it.
Instead of letting her diagnosis and multiple suicide attempts bring her down, she found healing through letter writing. Chao eventually started a club at her high school called Letters to Strangers in 2013.
“I was having a lot of trouble getting access to the healthcare system as a first-generation immigrant living under the poverty line with parents who didn't speak English,” the 21-year-old Los Angeles native said. “I ended up writing letters to strangers, and in these letters, I started to find my own voice and I figured if I could help me then maybe you can help other people as well.”
Students within the organizations write anonymous letters to offer their support for those who are fighting through difficult times.
Chao said the practice can create a “one human connection” which can save a life.
“When the organization first started, I had to bribe my friends with pizza, to come to our meetings,” she said. “But then people from nearby schools started hearing about it and were interested and my friends started coming, even without the pizza, and I was like ‘huh, maybe this is something that actually has merits.’”
The small organization that started at Chao’s high school has evolved into a global youth-run nonprofit that’s reached more than 35,000 people worldwide, and has expanded to 20 countries.
It now focuses on more than just letter writing, but also peer education and policy-based advocacy, she said.
Letters to Strangers partners with schools to provide training and talks for young people while also staying updated on current mental health-related policies and issues.
Chao said one of the most recent developments from the organization includes its “Youth-to-Youth Mental Health Guidebook” which includes a comprehensive dive into race and ethnicity and mental health in the United States.
“It's a huge undertaking that includes stories from people in 50 different countries,” Chao said.
Chao, who is also a senior at Princeton University, said she hopes to stay in the position of executive director for a few more years before passing the baton to younger members to take over.
She said since the organization was created, the overall stigma around mental health has declined, which is a positive.
“Even now, especially among minority culture and communities, it's still quite stigmatized, but I think having done all this work and seeing all the people in this network coming together as a family, I've learned to be a lot more kind to myself and also seeing this sort of vulnerability as a strength, rather than seeing it as something that I used to believe was a personal flaw,” Chao said.