Want to Drive Dialogue Around Mental Health? Write a Stranger a Letter
Calling 19-year-old Letters to Strangers founder Diana Chao a jill-of-all-trades is an understatement. She’s given a TEDxTeen talk, is an intern at Adobe as well as an Adobe Creativity Scholar, and is an incredible multi-disciplinary artist studying ocean physics. It’s hard to see her artwork and not only become an immediate fan, but also get inspired to go out and begin creating your own.
But all those accomplishments are just the tip of the iceberg. At 14, Diana founded Letters To Strangers, a global non-profit focused on breaking the socially isolating stigmas around mental health through the power of the human connection. Diana spoke to us about her passion for bringing people together, and her work with Letters to Strangers.
Letters To Strangers is about destigmatizing mental health, and building connections that will lead to compassion and empathy. Can you speak to how you came up with the idea for letters? What were those early days like?
When I was 13, I found out I had bipolar disorder. The severe depression that followed almost killed me, and in those days I shut out all of my friends, terrified that I would drag them into the painful abyss with me. In those days, I thought that even if the whole world stood around me, I would still be the hollowest person in existence. That’s when I turned to writing.
“In writing both stories and letters to no one in particular, I started to rewrite my own life. I could become anyone I wanted to be; in writing, I could free myself.” Eventually, I sought help. In my sophomore year of high school, I decided that I couldn’t let anyone feel the way I did again – not when I could do something about it.
Inspired by how writing helped me heal, and by the idea of anonymous pen pals, I created Letters to Strangers. At first, it was just a student club at my high school, and I had to convince all of my friends to join me. No one in my life had ever done anything like it before, and I hadn’t even heard of the word “nonprofit,” much less knew what it was. All I knew was that I needed to do something. Over time, I developed various protocols, set up partnerships, and invited anyone interested to join me. Slowly but surely, Letters to Strangers grew to what it is today.
In your opinion, how can we break the stigma around mental health?
It’s important to talk about mental health, of course, but that’s oversaid. We can’t just talk – we must learn to listen. More importantly, we must educate ourselves. Too often, words like “depressed” are jokingly thrown around, or people misprescribe any period of stress as “depression” – and that’s just with the more commonly “understood” concept of depression.
“All I knew was that I needed to do something.”
With schizophrenia, suicide ideation, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and so much more, the understanding becomes increasingly narrow and the possibility of misperception and misuse that much higher. When this happens, we as a society continue the stigma around mental health. When we misassociate terms in mental health, we begin to adopt other incorrect assumptions, such as the idea that there is a guaranteed way to “fix” an issue, or that over time it will all “be okay.” Until we educate ourselves and those around us to understand what mental illnesses really are, and until we actively listen and ask questions to those experiencing them, simply talking about mental health will only result in more cluttered noise.
Chapter members at Letters To Strangers are encouraged to write anonymous, heartfelt letters that are then distributed to partner sites. What do you, and the letter writers hope to achieve by opening up to “strangers”?
There is oftentimes a fear of judgment that comes with associating your story with your name. The stigma around mental health and the fear of becoming a “burden” to those you care about means that we often don’t want to speak our truth. Beyond that, sometimes, it can be easy to feel like there’s no one who wants to talk to you or who would truly listen to you. By opening up to strangers, however, all of that is erased. Now you can embrace your story, because you know this stranger is someone, somewhere, ready to listen to you. Ready to hear what you have to say. They will not judge you, and because they do not know your name or your background, your story becomes the only thing that matters. With writing to strangers, the narrative is put back in the control of the writer, and we restore power and the possibility of human connection to the writers, even those who may have previously felt like they had lost all control of their life.
Letters To Strangers is just one part of your mission to destigmatize mental health. Can you speak to how this has impacted your artwork? Do you see the images you create as “Letters To Strangers”?
Letters to Strangers is currently gathering interview and survey responses to create action plans for mental health. A few months ago I read a response that said that the biggest thing the person wants to see changed about mental health is the limitation on those who talk about it. They said that you often see people talk about mental health as a “thing of the past,” something that no longer really affects them. This may be hopeful, but it also means that people actively experiencing the depths of mental illness have no one to look to and feel an increasing burden to quickly, miraculously “move on.” This response encapsulates how the stories I have collected over the past 4.5 years with Letters to Strangers inspired me to finally make a self-portrait series depicting what bipolar disorder felt like to me. I avoided making these for years because I was terrified of exploring the intense emotions needed to accurately portray my story, but I decided to see them as “letters to strangers,” and in that way the “anonymity” of it helped assuage some of my fears. I did this, too, because mental health is severely impacted by the cultural stigma in people of color’s communities. In these images, I wasn’t Diana, but a girl of dual cultures, and I wanted such a story to be heard by those within and outside of my communities.
Breaking the stigma around mental health can be a daunting task. How can artists and communities help bring on change?
Tell your truth. Speak your why. Learn, listen, learn, listen, repeat until the impulse to judge is scraped clean. Then amplify. Mental health is so unique to each individual and so personal that only the specific person can truly describe it. So as artists, we need to show people our stories – art is such a visceral way to create human connection that it is almost the only direct way to overcome existing judgments about mental illness and show the world the truth. And as communities, we can support each other and take the time to care about mental health in all circumstances. Not when it’s used as a scapegoat or as a convenient excuse, but all the time. We should care for it, nurture it, and learn about it the same way we do with physical health. Because that’s exactly how important it is.