Diana Chao ’21 founded a global nonprofit called Letters to Strangers when she was just a sophomore in high school. Now, there are over 20 chapters of the organization in over 10 countries, with one here at the University.
“We are a global, youth-run mental health non-profit seeking to destigmatize mental illness and increase access to affordable, quality treatment,” Chao said when describing the mission of Letters to Strangers.
Chao was inspired by her own challenges with mental health, which began after her family moved to the United States from China when she was nine years old.
“I was growing up in a town that was predominantly white and what that meant was the juxtaposition of both economically feeling like I couldn’t live up to my peers, but also just questioning a lot about my own self-identity,” Chao explained.
When she was 13, Chao experienced a wake-up call that made her realize the importance of advocating for mental health.
“It was after a suicide attempt that I realized that I really needed to do something about it, but the stigma was so strong within in my family that I really had to figure out ways to deal with the situation on my own,” Chao said. “What I turned to was writing.”
Letters to Strangers clubs around the world anonymously exchange letters, which are meant to improve the mental health of both writers and recipients.
According to Chao, writing letters can have many positive effects.
“When you have to write a letter to somebody else, especially when it’s handwritten, there is that whole process of self-reflection and vulnerability that you have to go through,” she said.
Chao founded the University chapter of Letters to Strangers as a first-year student. Every month, the chapter exchanges letters with Anchor House, an agency devoted to helping youth aged 12–17 in Trenton.
Anchor House runs various programs to assist youth who have experienced trauma. The organization’s mission, Executive Director of Anchor House Kim McNear explained, “is to provide a safe haven where abused, runaway, homeless, aging-out, at-risk youth and their families are empowered to succeed and thrive.”
“Through our programming, we are providing therapy and counseling services to all the young people who are interested in participating,” McNear added. “It was really a nice opportunity to do it in a different way through Letters to Strangers.”
Chao chose to partner with Anchor House because of both the importance of working with local communities and the misconceptions she believes some University students have about Trenton.
“I wanted to challenge any previous conceptions, no matter how subtle or subconscious, that people may have about those in the Trenton area,” she said. “I thought exchanging letters with similarly aged people there would help remind us that, at the end of the day, no matter where we are at or what life experiences we've gone through, we are still human beings all the same.”
Heidi Bierbower, a case manager at Anchor House, runs the Letters to Strangers program at the agency. She explained the positive effects the program has on the youth who participate.
“It’s a sense of another support system in their life, where the anonymous aspect gives them a little bit of comfort and reassurance,” Bierbower said. “They might feel uncomfortable expressing something to their case manager or their therapist or any worker in their life or agency that they’re working with. This gives them an opportunity to take away that layer of discomfort.”
University students involved in Letters to Strangers also appreciate the chance to write down their feelings.
“Writing these letters always reminds me that I have to prioritize some time for myself and express how I’m feeling,” said club member Maria Fleury ’22.
Exchanging letters with Anchor House reminds club members that they are not alone in their struggles.
“Receiving letters has been interesting because it’s just recognizing that other people have a lot of the same concerns that I do,” said Annie Song ’21, Vice President of the University chapter of Letters to Strangers.
Song found similarities between her life and that of the person from Anchor House who wrote the first letter that she read.
“The person was talking about how they had an argument with their roommate and then how they were kind of stressed about an exam coming up. At the end of it, they were like, ‘But it’ll all be right, just take it step by step,’ which is something I really believe in,” Song said.
Every month, Chao gives club members a theme and guiding questions to inspire their writing.
“One time our theme was ‘Unexpected,’ so some questions were ‘What are some unexpected encounters you’ve had? How has that affected you?’” said Song. “It’s really just sitting with yourself and writing about an experience that you’ve had personally and then just letting it out onto the paper.”
Anchor House values the chance to connect with University students.
“It really was a great opportunity that we were unaware of, and so for her to bring this to our agency was really phenomenal,” McNair explained. “We really appreciate working with Diana and her team.”
Chao plans to increase interaction with Anchor House. The chapter has begun to write birthday cards to the youth at Anchor House, and soon club members might meet the people who they have written to.
“We’re going to try to arrange for our young people to go and do a visit at Princeton University and see the campus,” McNair said. “It provides them an opportunity to explore options and see what’s possible for themselves.”
The University chapter of Letters to Strangers also operates various task forces, including a letters task force, an advocacy task force, and a research task force currently working on making a guide to mental health resources on campus.
Additionally, the club plans various on-campus events. In December, the group had an “end of the year resolutions” event, where it invited students to write resolutions on a large sheet of paper.
“Towards the end of the year, it feels like everyone’s like, ‘let’s move onto the next, it’ll be better than this one.’ But there are still days left and we want to think of every day as a day of potential,” said Fleury, a member of the events taskforce.
Letters to Strangers also facilitates a Dean’s Date letter exchange between University students. Song, who leads the events task force, explained the set-up. The club, she said, organized a Google form where students could submit encouraging notes and receive a note back from a stranger.
Chao’s organization has made an impact on campus, in the community, and on a global scale.
Not limited to letter-writing campaigns, the Letters to Strangers chapter at Rutgers University developed the first mental health task force there, and the chapter in Karachi, Pakistan, brought the first psychology professional to its school system.
Chao has received global support from organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Adobe, and Unilever. She has had the opportunity to present keynotes at youth leadership conferences, including TEDxTeen.
“Over the past five years, we’ve impacted over 30,000 people on six continents,” Chao said. “That’s through letter exchanges, but also our workshops and the material we disseminate on mental health education.”