IN 2014, Claremont High, Calif., student Diana Chao was struggling to find help for her bipolar disorder. As a Chinese immigrant, she found that the standard treatments, such as therapy and medication, were either inaccessible or unhelpful for her. She found lifelines in two places: participating in her Thespian troupe and writing to strangers.

Those lifelines led her to found Letters to Strangers, a nonprofit organization that helps teens around the world and works to destigmatize mental illness.

Diana Chao was one of the L’Oréal Paris 2020 Women of Worth Honorees.

Chao, who was diagnosed at age 13, had experienced a disconnect between the compatibility in racial understanding and cultural competency of U.S. psychologists and psychiatrists — who are overwhelmingly white — and the needs of patients like her. “It felt like seeking help meant curating my story in a way that was more palatable to non-POC providers, because I was constantly being forced into the stereotype of ‘robotic kid overly stressed by tiger parents,’ when actually my parents didn’t care about my grades at all and my stressors were almost entirely non-school-related,” she says.

As a sophomore, she joined Troupe 2129 — “I’d always loved theatre and singing, so when I saw that my high school had a musical theatre program, it was a no-brainer to join,” she says — and turned to writing to strangers to combat her loneliness. These letters helped her realize that not only did she have a story worth telling, but if she could be kind and empathetic towards strangers, she should give herself the same courtesy. Her mantra: “Writing is humanity distilled into ink.”

“In writing anonymous letters to strangers, anyone can have total agency,” she says. “Our stories become our own to tell and write, and that reassurance of autonomy and self-value can be a lifeline when everything else feels meaningless.” Since letter writing had been therapeutic for her, she thought it might work for others as well, and that gave her the idea to start Letters to Strangers as a student club.

Now Chao is a college student at Princeton University and Letters to Strangers is a much larger organization. In addition to connecting people through anonymous letters, Letters to Strangers provides annual scholarships, which seek to fund the education of an underrepresented individuals studying in the mental healthcare field. “We hope to change mental health by diversifying the system itself,” she says.

Her Thespian roots are a strong foundation for her frequent speaking gigs on mental health. And though Chao hasn’t continued with theatre in college, she is involved with other performing groups including a cappella and dance. “It’s wonderful to still channel elements of my ‘Thespian self,’ even though I’m not directly part of any theatre productions on campus,” she says.

Diana Chao filming. Photo courtesy of Diana Chao.

What are your favorite memories of being a Thespian?
I loved seeing the shows come to life. When you’re behind the scenes, whether it be in a rehearsal or working on the computer designing publicity materials, everything feels so piecemeal and intangible. But the magic of the curtains opening and every element perfectly synchronizing with each other is just so thoroughly satisfying, you feel it in your soul.

How did you expand Letters to Strangers from your initial idea to a global organization?
Originally, I was very quiet about L2S (the shorthand for Letters to Strangers) being a mental health-oriented organization. I had only told a few close friends about my diagnosis, and I was terrified of the stigma and how people would react. During my high school years, I focused on framing it as an education-focused idea instead, raising money for literacy and rural education among other timely causes. However, once I graduated from high school and could finally leave the confines of my hometown, I decided to embrace my story and go public with my illness.

The warm reception I received completely took me by surprise and made me believe that finally, I can clearly tell the world about the mental health background of L2S and redirect our mission. That’s when more and more people began to find us online and wanted to get involved. At the time we were really one of the only youth-for-youth mental health organizations out there, and being one led by a young woman of color (me) meant that we drew a diverse and underserved crowd of youth changemakers who were eager to make their imprint on the world, too.

With their generous faith and incredible work ethic, they developed chapters (“branches” of sorts) on their school campuses and in their local communities, eventually growing to a network of more than 35,000 people in over 20 countries worldwide. That makes us the largest youth-for-youth mental health organization today.

Diana Chao delivers a keynote address at Framingham State University. Photo courtesy of Diana Chao.

You are studying geosciences, history, and diplomacy. Did your theatre experience prepare you in any way for your current studies and for starting your own nonprofit organization?
My studies are definitely a bit unorthodox (there are about 10 people in my major in my grade), but I think the spirit of adventurousness related to it comes in part from my Thespian background. Being a Thespian meant fusing together elements of life that might otherwise feel disjointed, from tech to publicity to house management to acting to music, and I’ve really taken all the quick-thinking and adaptability skills I gleaned from theatre into my current academic life.

As for my nonprofit, actually a huge part of it is motivated by a deep trust in the ability of the arts to epitomize human expression. That’s probably the biggest takeaway I had from theatre in high school, and it is one of the reasons why one of L2S’s biggest projects to date was a short film series about letters featuring actors from the Screen Actors Guild of New York.

Diana Chao was one of the We Are Family Foundation 2017 Global Teen Leaders. Photo courtesy of Diana Chao.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are even more isolated and depressed. How are you coping in this time?
Honestly, I haven’t been doing too well — but who has, right? I think the key thing during this time is to give ourselves permission: Permission to rest, to heal, to be a bit slower than usual, to take care of our health (mental and physical). It’s really put into perspective for me how precious and unpredictable life can be, so I am focusing on rechanneling my energy towards gratitude and carpe diem whenever I can.

Of course, there are still plenty of days when I just roll up in my blanket like a burrito and sob for hours, but I also don’t blame myself for that anymore. When there is so little we can do, one thing we ought to give ourselves credit for is getting through each day with such limited experiences and tools at our disposal.

What advice would you offer current high school Thespians?
The skills, friendships, and experiences you glean from theatre will stay with you for life. Though you may worry about getting the perfect role, or nailing the perfect line, or aligning your career prospects to perfectly expand upon your thespian background, know that no matter what happens, being a Thespian won’t leave you. Worries will come and go, but the Thespian spirit is for life!

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