Courtesy of Diana Chao
Chao seeks to build a movement around better youth mental health

When Diana Chao ’21 was 13 years old, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which included a psychosomatic symptom that, for episodically through high school, left her blind. Exchanging letters was part of her recovery process, one that she’s bringing to the world as part of a global movement toward better youth mental health.

“We are really trying to tackle the whole journey of mental wellness, and letter writing is great at any point in the journey,” says Chao.

In 2013, Chao started Letters to Strangers, where people can anonymously write and exchange letters, often with a theme, combined with trained peer leader discussions about the topic. It’s not quite a pen pal system, since the letters are anonymous and randomly distributed, but a way for participants to “let their heart rest. Let it bleed; let it run wild; let it bleed into ink,” according to the letter writing guidelines. Letters can be physical or electronic, sometimes with letters handwritten and then uploaded in order to be exchanged.

Since 2013, Letters to Strangers has reached more than 500,000 people in 70 countries on six continents. Each chapter can also take on unique challenges and tackle “what they feel is lacking, and how can we create a better way forward” when it comes to mental health, Chao said. The Princeton chapter, for example, worked with the school’s Undergraduate Student Government to create a handbook for students to navigate Princeton’s mental health systems. The group’s office in Liberia has been running the first toll-free Pan-African mental health hotline. It’s been so successful that it’s now being funded by the national government, starting this year. 

Chao is currently working on her MBA at Oxford University as a Skoll Scholar, a competitive scholarship that funds students who pursue entrepreneurial solutions for urgent social and environmental change. Chao is undertaking the degree to grow her leadership skills and bring her work — organizations like Letters to Strangers — to the next level. 

Chao knew she needed this kind of education when she saw that her team “was always looking to me for answers, and I realized I was at a point where I didn’t know if my answers were the best for plans they were trying to develop, and plans they were trying to make,” she said. 

Recently, Chao was a youth delegate at the World Economic Forum, sponsored by the We Are Family Foundation, a youth-focused nonprofit founded by musician Nile Rodgers. There, she presented Letters Strangers, spoke at several events, and met with government and philanthropic leaders in the realm of mental health care. She also discussed what worries younger generations have about the future, including impacts of AI and climate change.

“We want to inspire intergenerational dialogue as we forge this new path together for the future,” she said.