Diana Chao, Letters to Strangers

I was really afraid imagining what people would think if they knew I had bipolar disorder.

Diana Chao

Meet Diana Chao, Unilever’s 2018 Young Entrepreneurs Awards Winner, TEDx Speaker, conceptual photographer, award-winning artist and founder of Letters to Strangers (L2S) – an organization working to de-stigmatize mental illness through letter writing, peer education and policy-based advocacy.

For our Girls to Watch series, we spoke to Diana about her journey, her purpose and about what inspired her to conceive Letters to Strangers.

Manvi: From receiving a publishing deal at the age of 13 to be recognized by the U.S. Navy for your research on dengue virus at 16, to researching for NASA at the age of 18, how did it all start for you?

Diana: I’ve been very lucky to have had some serendipitous opportunities. I’m a first-generation Chinese-American immigrant from Southern California, currently a second-year student at Princeton University. I went to a public school my whole life and belong to a family of small business owners that got affected by the 2007 economic recession, so I started working at a young age to support my family. I was brought up by grandparents who cared deeply about my education. Therefore, I was motivated to look for opportunities to learn more from experts about those fields that interested me, even when I had no prior experience or connections.

You fell temporarily blind multiple times, yet pursued photography and then got featured on Vogue Italia, Adobe and Redbubble. Which year was that? And, what led you to photography? Did you ever think of becoming a full-time photographer?

I was diagnosed with uveitis in 2013. I decided to pursue photography nonetheless because I had enjoyed photo-editing for a long time. Healing from my blind episodes made me see this world in a new way. Everything felt more alive and magical. I wanted to capture that vibrancy on camera and showcase stories of my heritage that otherwise got ignored in the fine art photography industry. I’m still trying to be a full-time photographer, but as a student and a mental health advocate, that goal is pushed back a bit for now.

You possess several feathers in your cap – you are a Coca-Cola Scholar, a Three Dot Dash Global Teen Leader, a (self-proclaimed) karaoke-fu champion. However, you are well connected to people through your organization, Letters to Strangers. What led you to conceive Letters to Strangers?

After experiencing mental illness myself at the age of 13, I fell into a deep spiral that nearly took my life several times. I didn’t have many people to talk to, so I turned to writing. I found solace in writing letters to seemingly no one, yet therefore everyone at once. In those letters, I learned that I had a voice and that I should be kind to myself. This helped me understand that I wasn’t the only one experiencing so much pain, so I founded Letters to Strangers at age 14 to help others through the power of words.

Tell us about your journey so far as the founder of the organization.

It’s been very difficult! I had to learn everything from scratch. My parents did not speak English, I didn’t know that a ‘nonprofit’ was even a thing, I had to promise my friends a free pizza to get them to come to our first few meetings. I didn’t have any guidance on things until I graduated high school, when slowly I found solid footing. Another reason was that as a founder, you’re generally more invested in the vision than anyone you work with. However, I’ve been extremely lucky in meeting people who care as deeply about youth mental health as I do and having them on board has become essential.

Now, I make it clear to people that just because our team is young doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve their investment. With rising success, making a business case has definitely gotten easier!

When you started first, did you get the required support from people?

I was really afraid imagining what people would think if they knew I had bipolar disorder, so for a long time I would explain Letters to Strangers from an ‘educational’ approach rather than a ‘personal’ one. I was afraid to ask for help at times because I didn’t know how to tell people that I was hurt, and that’s why Letters to Strangers meant so much to me. I was also scared that jobs and universities would dismiss me as a ‘liability’ if they knew I had a mental illness. The stigma made it difficult to bring up the mental health engine behind Letters to Strangers in many conversations.

In one of our calls you said that “Writing is humanity distilled into ink”. How did it help you?

Writing helped me figure out that I am more than the shadows that threatened to tear me apart. I was able to relearn who I was, and that helped me tremendously with regaining my self-confidence.

You have engaged over 30,000 people and 10 countries in your initiative. What all activities do you conduct within chapters?

Chapters can take any combination of our three paths: our signature anonymous letter-writing exchanges, peer education programs, and grassroots policy-based advocacy. There are many ways each avenue can be pursued, but it means that workshops, wellness fairs, speaking and peer counseling sessions, letter exchanges with partner sites like youth runaway shelters, and convincing school administrations to hire more counselors are all activities that Chapters have done in the past and do today.

Do you think the world needs personalized letters more than ever before?

Yes, but Letters to Strangers doesn’t focus on personalizing letters to the recipient. All letters are sent to strangers and no letter writer knows who received and read their letter. The personalization comes in personalizing a letter with the writer’s own story. By sharing vulnerability like this, we can build empathy across people from all sorts of backgrounds in a better way. In the end, it is a subtle but persistent push towards one of our key beliefs at Letters to Strangers: no one walks this Earth alone.

You want to increase access to affordable quality mental health treatment, what according to you is the way forward?

We need to have culturally-aware therapeutic guidelines set in place with diverse languages, religions, and geographical locations taken into account. This means that

  1. Trying to help someone of a certain background shouldn’t look like unilaterally deciding what they need, but actually engaging with them on a personal level and asking them how they can best be helped.
  2. The ratio of therapists and psychiatrists to residents in a location needs to increase. There needs to be a wider spread in mental health education across schools so that aspiring for a profession in that space is actively desired by people entering the workforce.
  3. Pharmaceutical companies need to work with aid agencies and government departments to ensure that psychiatric drug research is not complacent, is thorough, affordable and well incorporated in aid packages.

Blog written by Manvi Pant

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