To finish our Mental Health Awareness month, the Student Voice team spoke to Diana Chao, the founder of Letters to Strangers. Diana is an activist, a change maker, a student at Princeton University, an immigrant, and a true believer in the value of the human connection.
Student Voice: Can you tell us a little bit more about Letters to Strangers and what prompted you to begin it?
Diana: Letters to Strangers is a global youth organization aiming to de- stigmatize mental illness and increase access to affordable, quality treatment. We do this mainly through our namesake letters exchange program, but also through political lobbying, peer counseling, and various other task forces we have formed since we created the organization four years ago- around the fall of my sophomore year of high school. I founded Letters to Strangers because the two years prior I fell into a severe depression, bipolar disorder, and was very suicidal.
Coming out of that dark hole, I felt extremely isolated, alone, like no one ever cared about me or that I had any worth or reason to stay on this earth. So, I knew that I wanted to do something to make sure that no one ever felt that way ever again.
I know I’m just one person, but, during that time, the thing that helped me heal was the idea of the human connection, the fact that I could talk to strangers- people who knew nothing about me- but who were still willing to support me. This experience showed me that even a stranger could care about me. So, that is what prompted me to condense these avenues- writing and the idea of the human connection to become a way for people to express themselves and find solace in really dark times.
Student Voice: That is amazing! So, how many people are involved in Letters to Strangers now?
Diana: It varies year by year, but right now we have chapters on four continents, with multiple chapters in the United States. As of last December, we have impacted nearly 27,000 people. As of this month [February 2018], we have increased that reach by another 2,500.
Student Voice: We at Student Voice talk a lot about school climate and how it is important to the environment that makes a student feel comfortable in school. We think that a big part of that conversation needs to be about student mental health and all of its contributing factors. How do you see mental health impacting school climate? How do you see school climate impacting mental health?
Diana: I think that we each have our own understanding of how that connection and relationship works. School climate impacts everything from academic pressure, social pressure, emotional pressure, relationships, balancing school life with home life, handling finances, first generation and low income stress, and adjusting to a new culture as an international student. However, the nice thing about school climate is that everyday that a student is in this environment they are exposed to different types of people and ways of life. This is useful to cultivating broader empathy, having the ability to connect with people, and being able to put yourself into the perspective of another person. But, at the same time, this could add stress as students feel as though they always have to compare themselves to others. So, I think school climate has both negative and positive effects on mental health.
Student Voice: Do schools have the resources to adequately help students with mental health?
Diana: A lot of the schools do not have enough resources to adequately help students, so they go to the community. While this is great, it also means that a lot of schools are stuck offering traditional resources. What I mean by that is that in the current age there are a lot more factors impacting mental health that were not in existent 20–30 years ago when the traditional resources came to be. For instance, cyberbullying is a huge factor in student mental health, but if the school is working with someone that they have been working with for many years, they may not have adapted to these new influences of mental health. Whether the resources available to students are adequate or not really depends on the school and the location of the school, but, in general, no, there are not adequate resources to help students with mental health care.
Student Voice: What resources do you think should be in place for students, regardless of zip code?
Diana: A well trained, diverse number of counselors should be on call at all times during the school day. I especially emphasis the diverse part because cultural elements can influence mental illness and become extreme barriers to students, especaially for immigrant students and students of color. While mental health certianly does not only impact immigrant communities and communities of color, there needs to be a diverse group of counselors available to students because, often, the best ways to help with mental health is to do so with someone who understands the stigmas that a culture faces. Additionally, increasing the number of counselors is important, as well as increasing the transparency.
Student Voice: What would you say to a teacher or administrator if they asked you how to improve school climate?
Diana: Any teacher who is asking that question is already moving in the right direction. Teachers need to be actively thinking about how their classroom setup can be conducive to positive mental health. There are a lot of ways that teachers who feel helpless against this issue can improve mental health in their classrooms within the work that they already do. For instance, if they make it very clear that they are open to talking to anybody about these issues or if a student needs anything, they will be beneficial to the student as many teachers don’t make that explicitly clear. Overall, we need to de-stigmatize mental health by normalizing having conversations about it. Once people are comfortable talking about mental health, they will be more likely to feel comfortable getting help.