2018 Young Entrepreneurs Awards Winner: Diana Chao

Initiative: Letters to Strangers

Country of impact: US

A business seeking to de-stigmatise mental illness and increase access to affordable treatment through the intimate and human power of anonymous letter writing.

When Diana was 13 years old, she found out she had bipolar disorder. Not long after, she attempted suicide.

She’s not alone. In fact, 1 in 5 young people aged 13–18 have a mental health condition. And suicide is the second biggest cause of death among 15–34 year olds in the US; worldwide, the rate has jumped 60% in the last 45 years. Yet 80% of young people in the US suffering from severe depression receive little to no treatment.

To ease the pain, Diana turned to writing. She wrote letters to nobody in particular, getting her feelings out into the ether. She was still in sophomore year at high school when she started her non-profit business, Letters to Strangers, an initiative that took the writing that worked for her and showed others how it could also work for them.

An intimate and human approach

During the last five years, it has evolved into a global youth-run organisation, supporting more than 30,000 people on five continents. At its heart is a letter-writing exchange programme, a simple, human and intimate way to encourage people to have a conversation that they might never have had, with somebody perhaps going through a similarly tough time.

This is combined with education and workshop tours that use Diana’s own method for getting young people to talk about their issues. This includes teaching them how to tackle problems often forgotten, such as how to open up to parents about mental illness or self-diagnosis.

Power in simplicity

With clearly delineated starter kits, guidelines, graphics, scripts, FAQs and examples, Diana now hopes to scale up the business using a network of passionate people to facilitate discussions and share reflections. “The power of Letters to Strangers lies in the simplicity of our idea,” she says. “All that one needs to get started is a pen and piece of paper.”