Minority Mental Health Advocate: Diana Chao


"We cannot afford to ignore minority mental health." -Diana

Tell us about the work you do and how you got started.

I founded Letters to Strangers when I was 14. Two years prior, I'd sunk deep into depression and bipolar disorder and attempted suicide. After that experience, I couldn't bear the thought of anyone feeling so lonely and lost. I believe in the power of human connection; that writing is humanity distilled into ink; that one letter - one human connection - can save a life. So when I heard of people at VidCon exchanging letters with strangers for fun, I transformed that into an in-school experience where peers could support each other with anonymous letters meant to share their own stories, thoughts, and provide solace in the comfort of respectful anonymity. Eventually, L2S grew into a global exchange and a force for political and on-campus mental health advocacy/toolkit.

Why does minority mental health matter to you?

Growing up in an immigrant Chinese-American household from rural, uneducated backgrounds, it was almost a crime to feel anything but happy and grateful to be in the States. When I tried to commit suicide, I was told I was not worth saving if I'm "going to be like that." It took a very long time to understand that my parents really did care about me, but they were unfortunately stuck to cultural stigmas that didn't look kindly upon mental illnesses. Now, they are much better at understanding the nuances of mental illness. However, many minority and immigrant families hold even worse stigmas and don't bend so easily. This, coupled with the less-than-human status reflected back at many minorities from societal actions, media, and dialogue is not just harmful to minority individuals but even potentially deadly. We cannot afford to ignore minority mental health.

What would you tell your younger self?

People tell you, you don't appreciate the sting of happiness. You turn sugar to salt with your bare hands. You spill ungratefulness like breaths wherever you go. The important thing is not to tell them they don't understand, or that they don't care about you. You know hurt people hurt people. What you need is not necessarily to focus on them but rather on the rekindling of your own fire. Let the pain come - and I know it's so hard - but don't soak it in the acidity of others' own misunderstandings. Give yourself permission to feel, to not be okay. You hurt because you fight your own existence. But you have worth and strength. If you acknowledge your turbulence and hurt, you can face it. When you can face it, you can overcome it. Magic is slow, but it does exist, and you are more than capable of creating it.