Get to know Diana Chao and learn about why she founded Letters to Strangers, a global mental health non-profit hoping to destigmatize mental illness.
DIANA CHAO: It's hard to find hope sometimes, but I think what keeps me and so many people in our organization going are those stories that we hear every day. Seeing people from their first letter to, let's say they graduate from college, and witnessing their growth is one of the greatest honors of my life, honestly.
Hey. I'm Diana Chao, and I'm the founder and executive director of Letters to Strangers.
Letters to Strangers is today the largest global youth-for-youth mental health nonprofit. We directly impact over 35,000 people every year in over 20 countries and we seek to destigmatize mental illness and increase access to affordable and quality treatment. So our main programs take the form of three different pathways.
The first is, of course, our namesake-- letter writing. So these are anonymous, handwritten letter exchanges. They happen through our chapters on school campuses or in local communities. We also have an online platform that the public can use if they want to participate in a digital version of the letter exchange process. And then our other pathways include our science-based peer education and our grassroots policy-based advocacy.
When I was 13 years old, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And then when I was 14, I got an eye disease that made me go blind for about half of high school. Struggling with both of these things made me lose the light in my life in many ways. So that's when I started trying all sorts of different things, including writing letters.
And that was what stuck with me the most. I wrote letters to strangers, and I realized for the first time that I have a voice. I have a story worth telling. I think writing letters has a lot of different components to helping your mental well-being. A lot of times, we hear from people that journaling is great for our mental health. And that's really important.
But when you are your own worst enemy, sometimes if you're left alone to your own devices like I was, your thoughts kind of spiral downwards very rapidly. And that's where having an audience of sorts through writing to a stranger really helped me. It gave me this idea that I was talking to someone.
I felt like I needed to give them some sort of idea that there could be a good resolution to this. I didn't want to just leave them on a cliffhanger. And that forced me to think about the options I had and to give myself some hope as well. One of the most common things you hear from someone who is going through a difficult time is that they feel really alone. They feel like they are not heard, not seen, no one understands them.
So I think writing and then reading letters from someone else who can maybe for the first time make you feel like someone actually hears what you're going through and understands you or at least can really give you a moment of support that you feel like is critically missing in your own life, I think that gives a connection that so many of the people we work with feel like is lacking otherwise.
I remember when I was first going through my struggles. I didn't really hear people talking about mental health. And I think that has changed a lot in just a few years since. But even then, most conversation about mental well-being is, I feel, really focused on maybe more surface-level or acute symptoms or maybe symptoms that are more particular to a white model and understanding of psychology. And that's not reflective of most people's experiences in this world.
It is truly a shame that even though we know that suicide is the second leading cause of death in the world for young people, most resources are really just in the Western hemisphere. And more than that, we also know that fewer than half of countries in the world have more than one psychologist per 100,000 residents. So that's why I think Letters to Strangers-- it's important not just for us and people involved with us but people around the world who are going through their own struggles but feel like they can't say anything
This is an invitation to let them know that they truly are not alone.