Diana Chao is Taking Youth Advocacy to a New Level
The Letters to Strangers founder is fostering peer-to-peer support amongst international teens
A Google images search for “mental illness” produces some predictable scenes — people crouched in corners clutching their heads in anguish, anatomical brains surrounded by chemical compounds, silhouettes of sufferers gazing out windows in search of someone who understands.
The sentiment is clear: mental disorders bring isolation and fear into the lives of those affected. But the visualization doesn’t resonate. People battling mental disorders don’t want to be shrouded in darkness, they want their stories listened to and their insecurities addressed. They want faces, relatable ones, attached to an often faceless movement.
In this Q&A series, we help sufferers emerge from their figurative corners, by letting them describe their thoughts, feelings and experiences in their own words. And in doing so, diversify a conversation that is often formulaic and misleading.
Tell us about yourself — who are you, where do you live, what do you like?
I’m Diana Chao, a self-proclaimed karaoke-fu champion and scientist-artist with a passion for matcha and mental health. I was born in China, grew up near Los Angeles, and currently attend Princeton University in New Jersey, an hour outside of New York City.
Have you ever been diagnosed with a condition? How long did it take? What barriers did you face?
I’m diagnosed with bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder. The process took many years, starting from 8th grade until, most recently, my freshman year of college. As I’m from a traditional immigrant family of the poorest province in China, two major barriers I faced were cultural stigma against mental illness and immigration ignorance and poverty. Without the knowledge or money to access adequate treatment, and lacking the necessary support system at home to heal, I quickly withdrew into myself and surrendered to my shadows.
Was there a specific low point that drove you to seek help or open up to a loved one?
Around the time I was figuring out how to fully transition into high school, I had my most serious suicide attempt. My friends found out my previous plans and always so kindly dissuaded or caught me, but this time I could not breathe without hating the way my lungs swelled; everything in me shuddered at the thought of everything about me, and the weight of feeling like a burden dragged my existence like an anvil. During this attempt, my little brother found me at the precipice of the end. Humiliated. I was so humiliated. Here was the person who I swore I’d protect at all costs, the one piece of my life I was so proud of and happy to see. After that day I actively sought out therapists; I realized that I must be more for my brother. I must be alive.
What stigma or cultural misconceptions have affected, or still affect, your recovery?
In Asian culture, there is often the idea of holistic bodily health, wherein a problem of the mind is interpreted as a reflection of a past mistake, a personal flaw, or simply a physical ailment that a few herbal teas can no doubt fix. In reality, there is the counterpart of psychosomatic symptoms: the manifestation of psychological distress through physical pain that disproportionately affects Asians. Ignorance around the latter and insistence on the former meant that for a very long time, I believed having a mental illness meant that there was something inherently wrong with me. My trauma played an intimately paralyzing role in uveitis, an eye disorder I was diagnosed with a few months after my first suicide attempt. This inability to connect my physical pain with my mental one while berating myself for feeling human emotions led to me not seeking help for a long time because I didn’t think I deserved help. Now, I actively force myself to not fall back into these old thought trappings and to remember that vulnerability is strength.
What coping tools help you manage your condition?
Art. Through writing, poetry, performance, and photography, I find that I can express the depths of my emotions in a conduit that is easier for people to understand and empathize with — thereby allowing me to feel more comfortable with my own story and identity, healing in the process.
In your opinion, what’s wrong with the current state of mental health care, both in your immediate community and on a broader scale?
I would say the number one problem is that mental healthcare is already strained combatting the rising rates of mental illness among the young generation, yet key decisions continue to be made without the input of the very youth that are being sent to mental institutions in waves. This is the cyberbullying era, where curated social media perfection and desensitization overstimulate and overwhelm in a world that isn’t equipped to handle new intensified pressures. We need to hear the youth experiences, youth voices, youth suggestions, and youth pain to understand how best to mitigate the rising mental health crisis before it’s too late.
What are you doing to combat those issues? What do others need to do to create change?
I’m the founder and executive director of Letters to Strangers (aka L2S), a global youth-run mental health nonprofit seeking to destigmatize mental illness and increase access to affordable, quality treatment through anonymous letter-writing exchanges, peer education programs, and policy-based advocacy. Over the past five years, we’ve impacted over 30,000 people with Chapters and Partner Sites on five continents via a team formed entirely of middle school to college-aged youth. We’ve been recognized by the White House, Child Mind Institute, NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), Unilever and the Prince of Wales, and more.
Of course, the easy answer for me is that others who want to create change should join L2S. Despite our youth-focused mission, anyone can start a Chapter or Partner Site and help us amplify our mission to better mental health from the ground up. However, on a day-to-day level, it’s important to embody empathy in your life. For example, if you know someone is struggling, telling them to reach out may not be enough. Instead, invite them to eat dinner with you or to join your movie outing. They may not come, but the gesture speaks volumes: no one is alone.
What’s your opinion on the mental health spectrum — the idea that our conditions and experiences are fluid, and that treatment needs to accept and respond to our ever-changing mental state?
Yes! I think there definitely is a mental health spectrum and that everyone’s experiences are different and maybe even changing all the time. That doesn’t mean that treatment is futile, however — it just means that we have to be aware of and account for flexibility. It also means we should not reject someone’s story just because it doesn’t sound like what we have personally experienced. In a way, that shuts down crucial dialogue and prevents us from helping more people feel empowered to come forward and speak.
What advice would you give someone reading this right now?
Take 30 minutes every day to just experience art: whether that’s listening to music, reading poetry/books, browsing DeviantArt, drawing, writing, dancing, or anything else. Become comfortable with fluidity and bold palettes and confused but intriguing and worthwhile characterizations.
Stretch right after you wake up. Stretch before you go to bed.
Drink water. (Recyclable) bottles of it.
When you’re distressed, take 30 seconds to just breathe in and out, slow as a summer leaf, gently pillowed by the quietest of breezes.
Do something kind for someone, every day. You are well enough to help someone else. You have the power to make a difference. You’re worthwhile.
Are you an artist or advocate?
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