Humanity Distilled into Ink

How Diana Chao is Destigmatizing Mental Illness With Letters to Strangers

During Diana Chao’s sophomore year of high school, she had the typical accomplishments of a future Coca-Cola Scholar. She led her debate team to the state championships. She was captain of the Science Olympiad team, publicity officer for the Young Democrats Club, and events coordinator for her school’s Habitat for Humanity chapter. Her photography had been published in Vogue Italia’s Photo Vogue four times.

During that same year, she attempted suicide.

Fortunately, her younger brother found her in the nick of time. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 13, Diana struggled with suicidal ideation and attempts for some time.

“That incident made me think – no matter how dark my world got, I didn’t want to drag him down with me. It made me want to try to heal, but I didn’t know how,” Diana said.

Unsure how to navigate the health care system and nervous to share her experience with friends, she began writing letters. The letters were to no one, but getting her feelings out on paper provided an outlet for human connection without the fear of judgement.

From there, Letters to Strangers was born.

Letters to Strangers began as a club at her high school that raised money for local charities and wrote heartfelt anonymous letters distributed throughout the community. Her hope was that these letters would help someone who was secretly struggling as she was.

“I was very much terrified of what people would think. I only told two people in my entire time in high school about my bipolar disorder because I was so scared of what people would say,” she said.

When Diana left her hometown for college at Princeton University, she saw an opportunity for a fresh start and a chance to be her true self. Growing up, she had seen others be vulnerable in sharing their stories, including at her recent Coca-Cola Scholars Weekend – it seemed freeing and gave her the courage to do the same.

She resumed Letters to Strangers, but this time, Diana owned her story and struggles with mental health with a new mission: destigmatize mental illness and increase access to affordable, quality treatment for youth around the world.

Since then, Letters to Strangers has expanded to six continents, impacting over 35,000 people. Their youth-run team works to make mental health personal through writing anonymous, heartfelt letters that share vulnerabilities and offer support for those struggling through difficult times. They also foster change at an institutional level by bringing mental health professionals to middle school, high school, and college campuses and many chapters have created student-run mental health task forces for the first time on their campuses.

A Letter to Strangers chapter in Liberia

Another way the group makes mental health personal is through peer counseling. Partnering with schools and mental health organizations, they facilitate their unique youth-for-youth educational mental health module (called S.I.M.P.L.E.) for thousands of high school and college students across the country each year.

Seeing Letters to Strangers change lives for the better has been an incredible experience for Diana.

“After one of our events, a 14-year-old girl sent me an email. She had felt alone for so long and didn’t think that her life was worth living. She didn’t understand how to navigate all the feelings she was having. And she said Letters to Strangers was like a hero in her life. She ended up volunteering with us and it became a big turning point for her,” Diana said.

It’s changed Diana’s life, too.

“I think I’m much more forgiving of my existence. During the darkest moments, I hated every part of myself. I thought I was doing the world of favor if I disappeared permanently. And through this process, I realized that I can’t ask people to put value in themselves if I don’t do that on my own also. I grew so much more aware of like my own strength,” she said.

At the 2018 Coca-Cola Scholars Leadership Summit, Diana was inspired and encouraged by Coke Scholars from around the world to continue working towards her goals, no matter how unattainable they may seem.

Diana at the 2018 Coca-Cola Scholars Leadership Summit

“The Leadership Summit was the first time that I had met so many people who had similar values, ambition, and drive. It was a big turning point for me, just realizing that I wasn’t being silly or outrageous in wanting to make these big changes. It was a very motivating feeling. And I think it’s important for me to try to pass the baton to others,” Diana said.

She’s received even more encouragement since then. Diana has been named Oprah Magazine’s 2019 Health Hero, the youngest winner of the Unilever Young Entrepreneurs Award, and the only American winner of the 2019 Global Changemakers cohort.

Letters to Strangers plans to widen their impact further through their new mental health guidebook. Written entirely by 14- to 21-year-olds and reviewed by experts and medical professionals, the book covers the A to Z of mental health with the help of over 50 authors from around the world.

“I wish it was something that I had when I was struggling through my darkest times. You can look for things online, but the sources are scattered around, and it can be hard to synthesize what it means. The book covers types of disorders, types of therapy, medication, and cases of treatment, but then we also have dedicated section has delves into how our various identities might affect our mental health journeys,” Diana said.

The book, the peer counseling, the letters – it all boils down to one motivating goal for Diana: that mental health is discussed just as openly as physical health. And she thinks human connection is the key.

“I believe that the human connection is what will ultimately change our lives. We need to foster empathy, one person and letter at a time.”

Diana Chao is a 21-year-old first-generation Chinese-American immigrant from southern California. Diana founded Letters to Strangers (L2S) when she was a sophomore in high school after bipolar disorder nearly ended her life. By beginning to heal through letters, she discovered that writing is humanity distilled into ink. Today, L2S is the largest global youth-for-youth mental health nonprofit, impacting over 35,000 people on six continents. For this effort, Diana has been named Oprah Magazine’s 2019 Health Hero, the youngest winner of the Unilever Young Entrepreneurs Award, and the only American winner of the 2019 Global Changemakers cohort. As part of Adobe’s inaugural class of global Top Talents, Diana seeks to further the intersection of creativity and social impact through conceptual photography. Her “Minority Mental Health Month” self-portrait series went viral with 2+ million engagements, and she gives workshops and speeches on youth mental health.  But most of the time, she is a junior at Princeton University trying to wake up for class on time.  

To learn more about Letters to Strangers or start a chapter of your own, visit www.letterstostrangers.org. To purchase their mental health guidebook, visit https://www.letterstostrangers.org/store.

The Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation celebrates and empowers visionary leaders who are refreshing the world. With its 31st class of Coca-Cola Scholars, the Foundation has provided more than $69 million in scholarships to over 6,150 program alumni who together have become a powerful force for positive change.