Words || Saliha Rehanaz

Grapeshot interviews the founder of Letters to Strangers, Diana Chao, to learn more about BIPOC Mental Health Month and the key to creating a better society, mentally. 

If you could describe BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) Mental Health Month in one sentence, what would it be?

Originally advanced by Black activist Bebe Campbell, BIPOC Mental Health Month is a celebration and acknowledgment of racial diversity and how ethnic cultures/identities can impact one’s mental health. 

Mental health is an issue that persists amongst all walks of life, regardless of race, gender, or social class. What is the purpose behind having a mental health month dedicated to BIPOC individuals?

Western psychology and psychiatry as we know it today was established by and for White individuals. From over 85% of American therapists identifying as White, to the relegation of culture-bound syndromes (symptoms that manifest particularly within one culture, such as “hwabyung” in Korean communities or “ataque de nervios” among Caribbean Latinos) into only the appendix of the DSM (the diagnostic manual used by professionals to diagnose mental illness), a lot of the minority mental health experience has been ignored or even weaponized in medical history. For example, stereotypes (such as the idea that Black individuals have “thicker skin” – metaphorically and literally) has led to provider bias where doctors prescribe weaker (or zero!) dosages of medication to treat the pain of Black people. Some dismiss patients outright by delegitimising their suffering. And some patients have difficulty even accessing healthcare in the first place. Indigenous people in the U.S. (and elsewhere!) sometimes live isolated from major urban centers (due to colonisation and genocide, mind you) and have little to no culturally-competent mental health specialists on their reservation. So it’s very important that we recognise how BIPOC individuals are disproportionately affected in non-standardised (read: non-White) ways by mental health stressors and concerns. 

3. What are some ways of appropriately raising awareness about mental health in BIPOC communities?

It’s important to elevate the voices of people in those communities first and foremost. Share your platform with their stories. Remember that there is nuance for everyone, so do your research and educate yourself, but don’t categorise all people of a certain background as one “archetype” of a mental health patient. If you want to help by starting a project, talk to leaders in the community first. Don’t just assume you know the best solution on their behalf. No need to build a whole new project from scratch, either, if you can help revamp/grow/emphasise the existing work of people in those communities. Remember that at the end of the day, awareness is important, but all the awareness in the world cannot make sustainable change unless we get to the ground and work. So post educational content, but also donate, support legislative reforms, and maybe even become a professional yourself so you can be the change from the inside out!

4. Why does mental health continue to be a stigma in societies all around the world?

There are a lot of nuanced reasons for this, but much of it is tied to history and culture. The need to be “strong” is already prevalent in society, but in the context of BIPOC, many grew up with generations of trauma (from survivors of slavery to refugees of war). This forced people to become “strong” to protect themselves and their loved ones for the purposes of sheer survival, which meant that any sign of “weakness” or “vulnerability” was seen as endangerment and carelessness.

Miseducation and misinformation also plays a part. Misconceptions, such as the idea that mental illness makes a person violent, or that people with mental illness are “unmarriageable,” etc. further this notion that mental illness is something that not only brings shame upon you, the individual, but also upon your community at-large. 

But we are seeing more and more now that vulnerability is a sign of emotional maturity and strength; the need to be “strong” is a superhuman feat that no one should have to fulfill every second of every day; mental illness is not a death sentence and those who have a condition are not “inferior” but rather warriors who learn to live with and tame the fire in their hearts.

5. What is Letters to Strangers and how has it been at the forefront of raising awareness about mental health?

Letters to Strangers, or L2S, is the largest global youth-for-youth NGO seeking to destigmatize mental illness and increase access to affordable, quality treatment, particularly for youth aged 13 to 24. We operate through three main pathways: 

1) Anonymous letter-writing exchanges with therapy-informed themes and guiding questions.

2) Science-backed peer education curricula, such as our world’s first youth-for-youth mental health guidebook (available on our website).

3) Policy-based grassroots advocacy efforts.

We support 35,000+ people in over 20 countries on six continents worldwide. Highlights of our network include: the first student mental health task force at Rutgers University Honors College (NJ, USA); the first mental health professional ever brought to speak at our Karachi high school Chapter (Pakistan); the first Mental Health Resource Center in Monrovia with our Liberia Chapter; a short film series created with the Screen Actors Guild of New York.

6. How has Letters to Strangers been supporting individuals during these difficult times, i.e through COVID-19, Black Lives Matter protests?

We’ve always been committed to racial and minority equity, but the need for that commitment is more obvious than ever. 

For COVID-19, we launched the COVID-19 Letters Collective, where we send letter bundles to frontline workers and those who are particularly isolated right now, such as seniors in nursing homes and chronic patients in pediatric hospitals. We also pushed up the launch of our online letter-exchange platform to allow people from all over the world to partake in letter exchanges. Workshops have been moved online, and some of our Chapters are conducting workshops on sewing reusable masks, sanitary hygiene products, and other necessities of human dignity and function that have been increasingly difficult to access as import restrictions/travel lockdowns skyrocketed the prices of products in many nations. 

We’ve also been conducting education on BIPOC mental health, using our guidebook as a reference since it contains the first deep-dive into Race/Ethnicity and Mental Health in the U.S. in almost 20 years (since the U.S. Surgeon General’s Report in 2001). For Black Lives Matter specifically, we are fiscally sponsoring a queer & Black-led organisation in Chicago (Activate:Chi) to provide medical professionals and equipment on protest frontlines (Chicago saw the most violent weekend in 2020 during the BLM protests). 

7. As an individual, what can I do to create a better society mentally for others?

Practice empathy – learn the difference between that and sympathy. Practice active listening – learn the difference between that and passive listening. Practice normalization of vulnerability, of flaws, of human existence. Be vocal and proactive in your support of others, but also emphasise the importance of maintaining the self. By living the example, you can help others who are too afraid to seek help see you as someone who might potentially understand them, so that you can be a sort of “uplifter” to help them get to the point where they feel safe and sound.

The important thing here is that we are all protagonists of our own stories. This means your job is not to solve other people’s problems for them – your job is to help them get to that point themselves. We aren’t the knights in shining armor – and that’s good, we don’t have to be! The only lead role we play is in our own stories: how we self-care, how we approach healing, how we learn to amplify and protect. For others, we can walk side-by-side as a friend – as simply, but powerfully, someone who deeply cares.

8. In times of struggle, what keeps you motivated and enables you to continue what you do? 

Honestly, it’s my community! The incredible L2S family keeps me going when I often feel burnt out or mentally drained. To see the passion and lived experiences of our network is both humbling and inspiring. But also, perhaps it’s my own belief as well that I must live this second chance at life right. I survived suicide attempts when I was younger, in the midst of the worst years of my bipolar disorder, and I feel the raw fragility of life acutely. Living is so precious; community is powerful even when you don’t know it’s there. Maybe, at the end of it all, it’s the faith that I think I need to have for a better future that propels me to fight on. 

Optimism – and by extension, hope – is a luxury. But it’s one of the few luxuries we can afford ourselves.
To donate or learn more about L2S, visit their website.