Why I Handwrite Letters to Strangers

AUG. 27, 2018

By Diana Chao


Dear Stranger,

Sometimes, in a moment of solid, quiet exhaustion, I have this longing deep in my chest. I want nothing more than to sit in a temperate field, soft sun alighting on the thin stalks of grass and mellowing through my bones. I just want that simplicity back. I want to sprawl on a bonnie green hill and make daisy chains till my fingers are stained with their pigment. I want to be able to breathe again—fresh air to expel the stale from my lungs.

I miss the slow breathing, the pillowing, billowing sanctity of mornings before duty and before wakefulness. These are my desires, stranger. What are we without something to cling to? 


A stranger



I was 14 and already diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I founded Letters to Strangers (L2S). This letter was submitted anonymously a year later, by a member of a L2S chapter. I held the paper to my chest and let my breath tremble its way out. It was as if someone had unwound my own chaos with words so gentle it hurt.

In those words, I felt seen for the very first time. 


I had just entered eighth grade when I found out I had bipolar. Writing soon became the only thing that made sense. I tore notebook papers apart with the intensity of my pen strokes; I wrote my story; I kept tossing it away. The words came, then disappeared in ripples: a brief pocket of relief quickly swallowed by murkiness. Then one day, when I wrote not to myself but to someone else—no one in particular, or maybe everyone at once—the words stayed afloat. I no longer wanted to throw them away. 

Suddenly, I recognized my voice.

It’s not a surprise to many that art therapy can work—really well. But it took the letters to show me that it can also work for me. In writing, I could be anything. Anyone. When I wrote to no one in particular, I could tell stories that hinted at my own, but I promised the characters a kindness and patience that I never allowed on my own. In those stories, I discovered I was worthy of love. My voice became my power, and I finally allowed myself to just be

By the time I was a high school sophomore, I decided to spread the idea of L2S. Writing anonymously showed me I deserved acceptance. My pain eased into something more bearable, living with me rather than for me. I wanted others to have the same experience.

As a high schooler, however, I felt I could not afford honesty—not openly. I hid my mental illness like a bad case of acne. Young people today face new pressures that old ideas often cannot accommodate: cyberbullying, curated social media perfection, overstimulation and desensitization. The best buffer—genuine human connection—is harder and harder to maintain behind the digital screen

Letters to Strangers, then, is an artform for those whose voice needs amplification yet who feels as if they must hide in the dark. It’s for my fellow human beings, yes, but all the more important for my fellow young people.

It works like this: We exchange letters anonymously between chapter members internally and with partner sites externally. After almost five years of exchanges on five continents, our students (ranging from middle school to college) have confirmed one thing:

Writing is humanity distilled into ink.

In a letter to a stranger, we forget the burden of judgment and fears. In the letters we read, we are no longer alone. Someone, somewhere, thinks of us too. We learn to care, to pay attention, to feel. In our growing empathy for others, we learn kindness, too, for ourselves.

So that’s why I write letters to strangers. As the only multilateral youth-to-youth mental health non-governmental organization in the world, we formulate one-of-a-kind anonymous letter-writing exchanges, peer education programs, and advocacy platforms. These all bloomed from our philosophy that one letter, one human connection really can save a life. 

It comes down to this: When the system is outdated, we need to change it from the inside-out, ground-up—with words to start. 


We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices

Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.

Submit to the NAMI Blog

We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.

Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.