For a young person struggling with mental health, what kind of difference would it make to know they aren’t alone? To know that someone else at school feels the same loneliness or heartache or has the same problems at home?
In Diana Chao’s case, it turned out to be lifesaving. At 14 years old, she put all of her pain into letters addressed to no one in particular — pouring out the feelings that led her to attempt to end her own life. When she re-read the letters shortly after, she was struck by an epiphany.
“I realized I was trying very hard to be the listener and empathetic stranger that I wanted in my life,” Chao, now 23, says. “That led me to get on my healing journey.”
As a high school student, she founded the first chapter of Letters to Strangers, a nonprofit, youth-led organization where students shared anonymous letters about their mental health struggles and found camaraderie and support.
Ten years later, the organization has grown to over 100 student chapters in 20 countries, including new chapters this year in Kenya and Rwanda. Depending on their interests, Chao says, the student-led chapters might exchange letters based on a theme, focus on education around mental health, or participate in advocacy for mental health resources at their schools.
Some letters offer a pep talk to students who feel pressure to have life figured out: “There will be obstacles thrown at us, and maybe we don’t get to slay the fire breathing dragon or kiss prince charming, but frankly we are pretty damn awesome.”