Editor’s note: The following story was submitted to The Press by Clara Lerchi, a 2017 graduate of Ridgefield High School, as an informal letter to the RHS Class of 2018.  

As senior year comes to an end, you have bunches of exciting things to look forward to: dances, award ceremonies, parties, and of course graduation! With all these celebrations, it definitely seems like you’re on top of the world. But after my first year of college I want to share my story and give some advice.  

The half-day before Thanksgiving break, college freshmen come back to visit friends and teachers at RHS. When I was in high school, I always looked forward to this day, because I would get to see my friends who had moved on to a new part of their life.  The returning students would always gush about how wonderful college was: the independence was great, they were meeting so many new friends, there were tons of interesting activities to try. Not once did I hear anyone say anything remotely negative about college. And so I built up this unreasonable expectation that college would be one big colorful party … which was illogical because I do not drink, so why would that be appealing?

I hope this letter will keep a few people from experiencing the same introduction to college as I did; it felt emotionally similar to a brick being thrown at my face.  There are definitely parts of college that are great. It’s just that no one ever tells their friends about the hours they spent studying in the library for a hard exam or how they cried after every chemistry lab or how they called home every day because they were homesick. But those things happen frequently and I experienced all of them.  

One of the parts I struggled with most was comparison. It always seems like the person on either side of you is doing better, has their life more together, and knows what’s going on. In reality we are all trying to find our way and having a hard time with it. If you are sitting in your chemistry discussion looking over the first exam that you failed, just know that the girl next to you who got a 93 could have anorexia and the boy sitting on the other side of you who got an 84 might have cried himself to sleep last night because his grandma died. We all have problems and it’s easy to get lost in your head. One of the things that helped me was when I started appreciating others around me and letting them know that they were important. It’s always surprising how receptive people are. If you make an effort to reach out, odds are you won’t be disappointed … if you are, then that person is probably a jerk and there are millions of people, so just try someone new.

First semester freshman year was the lowest point in my life. I felt angry at strangers when they laughed or smiled because I wasn’t sure if I would ever feel happy again.  Everything seemed grey. I struggled to get out of bed each morning because I hoped all of my atoms would spontaneously dissociate from each other. There were days when I wished that I was not alive. Looking back on it, and even while I was living it, I was so ungrateful. College should be this exciting new adventure, but I just wanted to go home and hug my mom. I know the people who love me were definitely upset that I did not love and cherish my life, but it did not feel like I was in control of my brain.

A few weeks ago in my psychology class, the professor mentioned that one million American college students leave school each year for mental health reasons.  One million is a large number. The U.S. has about 15 million students in public colleges and 6 million in private ones, so in total about 21 million college students (statista.com). With those numbers, one in 21 people will leave college each year because of their mental health. Despite these high numbers, people rarely hear about it, and when they do, it is with hushed voices and behind closed doors.  In the past year, I knew three students who struggled seriously with mental health in college: a close friend, my brother, and myself. Three seems like a pretty high number for less than 12 months, but I bet there were many people I didn’t even know about. In general, only the closest friends and family members find out. How can we solve a health epidemic that no one even knows about? After the college numbers, I searched further, but everything is so hidden.  No college wants to be the school where the most students kill themselves or drop out because they cannot function in the miserable environment. Cornell is viewed as the prestigious Ivy League school, not the high security campus with thickly fenced bridges that extend ten feet up to deter clambering students. The following quotes are from Chadron State College’s website, a Nebraskan school you have never heard of. The information is terrifying but valid: “More than 80 percent of college students felt overwhelmed by all they had to do in the past year and 45 percent have felt things were hopeless. Almost 73 percent of students living with a mental health condition experienced a mental health crisis on campus, yet 34.2 percent reported that their college did not know about their crisis. In 2011, students cited anxiety and depression as among the top impediments to academic performance. Thirty percent of college students have felt so depressed in the past year that it was difficult to function and more than 50 percent have felt overwhelming anxiety, making it hard to succeed academically. Forty percent of students with diagnosable mental health conditions do not seek help; concern of stigma is the number one reason students do not seek help. Seven percent of college students have, ‘seriously considered suicide.’  Suicide is the third leading cause of death on college campuses.” (According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the top three causes of death among college students are: accidents, heart and circulatory diseases, and suicide.)

Schools don’t want to talk about these numbers, but that does not make them less real and they must be addressed.          

Please keep in touch with the people you love, especially when you are struggling.  Part of me was embarrassed to show weakness. I didn’t want people to know I was hurting but I also didn’t want them to be hurt by my unhappiness.  That was stupid. I would help any of my friends or family members if they were feeling like I was, and I know now that they are willing to help me too. Thank you: Skylar, Pete, Michelle, Husna, Lily, Matt, Caroline, Mia, Olivia, Miranda, Emily, Patrick, mommy, and daddy for being there when I needed you. It must have been painful to watch me struggle but I am thankful that you did.

After such an awful fall, the second semester was not terrible. I’m still surprised how everything could flip around so quickly without that many changes. The two biggest things that transformed my experience at school were the BU rugby team and the musical Dear Evan Hansen.  

In September, I planned to be the same band kid as the year before. All of my closest friends had always been through music groups and I felt most comfortable in that environment. When I got to the BU pep band, it wasn’t the social support group I needed. But I kept doing it for the first semester because I was scared of letting go of what was familiar. I joined the rugby team second semester. My mom thought some goon would smash my head in, and my brother probably thought I would die of alcohol poisoning. But somehow, I still seem to be alive! I have only known these girls for a few months, and yet I love them like family.  Not only is it a wonderfully friendly bunch, but it was also the first time I ever felt completely comfortable with myself in a group of people. Growing up in Ridgefield, everyone is pretty similar, so it feels uncomfortable revealing your differences, but with this squad I don’t need to hide anything at all about who I am.

I love Broadway musicals. If I could replace my brain space that holds the lyrics of at least 25 shows, I would be so much better at school. Joking aside, this love for musicals definitely gave me unrealistic expectations. I’d heard of the Ridgefield bubble and I vaguely understood, but it wasn’t until leaving that I saw how sheltered a lot of us are. I’m not complaining; it was a great place to grow up. I had always considered myself an optimist, but maybe it was more that nothing seriously bad had happened. Either way, I became less positive when I left for school this fall.

Musicals gave me unreasonable expectations for reality, but one also saved my life: Dear Evan Hansen. This show might always make me cry, but in the most positive way possible. There were times last semester when I questioned if anyone would notice or mind if I didn’t exist. This musical taught me that people always care; they just stink at showing it. We get so caught up in our own little hurdles that sometimes we miss when someone else is seriously down and needs help, but with a tiny prod, most people will share a huge, welcoming heart.

The story part of this letter is over and here are a few last chunks of advice. Call home; your parents miss you, too. Don’t stare at your phone and keep your earbuds in all the time. It’s so hard to meet people and talk to them when everyone seems preoccupied with their cell phone. In reality, most people are doing absolutely nothing and just want to look and feel less awkward. After my first semester at Boston University, my GPA was quite high, but it nearly killed me. I am not bragging about my grades. … I am ashamed of what went down in the process of getting them.  Although you are going to college to get an education, don’t let it consume you. Try new things! I came into school determined that I would complete a six-year Doctor of Physical Therapy degree and be a band kid just like I had been for the past 4 years, but I ended up switching to Earth and Environmental Science and loving rugby. Social media is a lie. Hopefully you have realized that already, but it is so one sided; people only show the world smiling pictures during the best times, while keeping the depressed painful times hidden and locked out of sight. I am also guilty of this, but it does not make me hate the situation any less. Hopefully this letter is a bit of antidote to all the Facebook fakeness. Keep in touch with friends and family from home — not obsessively, because you need to move on, but it’s so nice to receive an unexpected message or letter from an old friend.  And finally, relax and enjoy it! This is different from anything you’ve experienced so far and it can be an amazing time if you work to make it one.

If you end up in Boston for school as a large amount of Ridgefield seems to, please do get in touch, especially if you are feeling lonely and want someone to hear you.  My email is clerchi@bu.edu and I probably check it too often.  

For now just enjoy the last few weeks of high school. Congratulations for all you have accomplished thus far.