College students are stressed. Students, students’ families, faculty, and university administrations know this, but “stress” is hardly a sufficient descriptor. The truth is that the past few decades have revealed a mental health crisis in the United States among college students. The suicide rate among young adults (15-24) has tripled since 1950. And over 60% of college students have reported that their mental health has worsened as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
It’s in the interest of colleges and universities to pay attention to mental health. Highly publicized stories of student suicides in recent years can hurt a university’s reputation and even their U.S. News and World Report rankings. Graduation and retention rates carry the most weight among the criteria used by the U.S. News and World Report to calculate their all-important rankings. The correlation between graduation rates and mental health is stark: “Poor mental health was significantly associated with dropouts among students in vocational and higher education. Males in higher education had five times the risk of dropout when reporting poor mental health,” according to a recent study conducted among college students in Denmark. In other words, ignoring the mental health crisis among young adults could prove fatal for institutes of higher education, not just for the students themselves.
Let’s talk about Princeton, and let’s talk most specifically about the Great Class of 2024, which could potentially be renamed the Great Zoom Class of 2024. Our classes, events, and socialization are being primarily conducted through virtual platforms. As a result, our ability to connect with fellow students is greatly reduced. This is a challenge when considering how Princeton might facilitate students in confronting topics as serious as mental health. Sensitive dialogue among individuals seems to be the ideal way to broach such topics.
But the challenges of distance are not insurmountable. Zoom provides an opportunity for real-time conversation. The highly active student GroupMe chats have allowed for discourse and community-building. Although making friends has been difficult for me, Zoom classrooms have been the environment in which I have felt most connected to my fellow students. I thrive on class discussion, and I believe that many students are even more engaged in their Zoom classes than they might be in ordinary classes simply because they are so starved for human interaction.
So how has Princeton chosen to tackle mental health issues with the Great Zoom Class of 2024? As many of you probably already know, the platform chosen was Kognito. According to their website, Kognito is “[a]n interactive learning experience for students that equips them with the skills to support their emotional health and that of their peers. The product introduces positive coping strategies, prepares students to recognize signs of distress, effectively communicate their concerns, and take action to find additional support.” Although this product description does not mention the elements of individualization, human interaction, and sensitivity that I believe are essential to successfully tackling mental health issues, there is nothing in this product description that seems problematic.
But how effective is Kognito? I decided to ask my classmates.
In a poll conducted anonymously via the “Official Online Princeton GREAT Class of 2024 even if Eisgruber doesn’t think so” GroupMe, using GroupMe’s poll feature of 81-88 students (not all students answered all questions), 100% of the students stated that they believe it is important for the University to address mental health with students. 79% responded that they have struggled with mental health in the past and or are currently struggling with mental health, with an additional 10% expressing concern that although they have not yet faced mental health issues, they believe it is a possibility for the future. Only 52% of students, however, said that Kognito was an effective method for addressing mental health issues on campus. On the flipside, 62% agreed that all the information was presented maturely and sensitively, and 79% believe that after completing Kognito, they are better prepared to take care of the mental health of their peers.
What’s troubling about that last statistic, however, is that students are currently in a poor position to be taking care of the mental health of their peers. Interacting with fellow students on a solely virtual basis makes it difficult to know if a student is exhibiting signs of distress. It’s impossible to know if our peers are engaging in excessive consumption of drugs or alcohol, disordered eating, self-harm, suicidal ideation, or any of the other many mental health challenges faced by college students, unless these details are deliberately shared. We don’t have roommates to look out for us. Many students are living alone or with family and friends who have not completed any kind of mental health training. Although students are feeling better prepared to take care of the mental health of peers, this is not something that is particularly relevant to our current situation.
What is relevant to our current situation is that students are feeling prepared to take care of their own mental health, an advertised result of Kognito training. However, 71% of respondents answered that they do not feel that Kognito training prepared them to take care of their own mental health. Clearly, the University has not taken into account the fact that students will primarily be looking out for themselves this semester. In fact, a poll I conducted among 211 members of Princeton’s Class of 20247 revealed that 68% of students feel that they do not have any close friends at Princeton. Given that Kognito was also used last year, it is furthermore evident that the University has chosen not to adapt to our radically different environment—an environment which, to reiterate, has led to 60% of college students stating that their mental health has worsened.
Kognito’s greatest defect, in my view, is the utter lack of humanity. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Kognito’s programming, it is composed entirely of virtual simulations. The cast enacting the scenes in the programming look more like characters from the Sims video game than human beings, and their words don’t match up with the movement of their mouths.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, only 21% of students felt that the scenarios presented in Kognito were fully relatable. Personally, after I learned about the life of the simulation’s main character, I felt quite inadequate. “Travis” is a full-time college student who works 30 hours a week, takes care of his niece, and still has time to regularly down entire six-packs of beer. He’s even a talented mountain biker.
Furthermore, many of the statements made by the characters feel strange, unrealistic, and even insensitive. For example, Travis has an old pizza sitting out unrefrigerated in his slovenly living space. At one point in the simulation, he offers a slice of the pizza to his friend, “Jesse.” In a joke that I still don’t understand (and which is in particularly poor taste given the current public health crisis), Jesse refuses the pizza on the basis of not having had all of her vaccines. Like the pomegranate seeds Persephone eats in the Underworld, tying her to Hades forever, the pizza slice seems to represent an irreversible invitation into Travis’s world, a kind of permanent disease. But food safety aside, mental illnesses are not infectious, and the distance that Jesse’s refusal puts between her and Travis, along with the accompanying medical implications, feels painful to the viewer. Evidently, Kognito’s producers have no qualms about playing into stereotypes about individuals struggling with mental health as being comical, unsanitary, and contagious.
This scattershot of commitments displays an intention to relate to all students while in fact alienating most. I also struggled to understand the argument that the simulation was making. Was Travis grappling with high levels of stress and suicidal ideation due to the fact that he was working too hard? Or was it because he was doing poorly in the classroom? Was it the binge-drinking? Was it because he was handling too many responsibilities? Or are mental health challenges like Travis’s only legitimate if one is dealing with all of these issues? Must a student be over-committed and failing all their classes in order to be recognizable as a student with mental health issues? The average Princeton student’s GPA is a 3.46—in other words, not at all failing. The average Princeton student works 10 hours a week—considerably less than Travis. I agree with the 79% of surveyed students that if there were a Travis in my life, I would be able to identify that he is struggling with mental health issues—and to Kognito’s credit, probably even if we were not living together, but were simply virtual friends. But I do not believe that the average student at Princeton University is struggling with mental health issues that look like Travis’s.
The University’s approach to Kognito is also rather strange. Comparable student experiences include “Not Anymore,” a sexual assault prevention and awareness course, and “AlcoholEdu,” a course on safe alcohol consumption. Both of these courses were required, completed during orientation (i.e., prior to the start of classes), and took multiple hours to complete. Both included quizzes, a variety of educational media (interviews, infographics, acted scenes, written scenes, etc.), and included an exam at the end to ensure that students had properly digested all of the information. Although I do not feel that all of the material was presented in the most mature fashion, particularly in “Not Anymore,” I can confidently say that I came away with new and useful knowledge after completing both programs. There’s hard evidence for this: my pre-test score on “AlcoholEdu” was a solid fail, and my post-test score was near perfect.
Kognito, in contrast, was advertised as taking only 30-40 minutes to complete (admittedly, my group ended up needing almost an hour). There were no pre-tests or post-tests. Similar to a video game, users choose responses to certain dialogue in the simulation. There was not an abundance of responses to choose from, and although my partner chose responses that led to a somewhat more circuitous route through the program than I did, he only finished a minute or two after me. Furthermore, I have no idea what the most efficient “path” through the simulation might be. I was not informed which of my answers were “correct.”
An hour had been scheduled for our zee group to complete the Kognito program and to then discuss the material together. If, as advertised, Kognito had taken 30-40 minutes to complete, we would have had 20-30 minutes to discuss the material with our RCA. In fact, our RCA was told that the program would take “about 30 minutes max.” However, everyone in my zee group spent at least 50 minutes, with some needing as much as 75 minutes. Evidently, my zee group either struggled enough with the material in the simulation that we required more time to complete it, or we were simply giving the material presented in the program more thought and attention than the program’s creators had anticipated. Instead, the result was that we had no time to discuss the program afterward. My experience was not unique. In a poll of 106 students,7 only 7% reported that they were able to discuss Kognito at length with their RCA, and 20% reported no discussion at all. An additional 26% reported that they did not know if their RCA facilitated discussion, as they did not show up to find out.
I read through the discussion questions that the RCAs were provided, and I was somewhat surprised by their depth and specificity. Questions like “Have you ever had a friend for whom you had concerns and decided not to approach? If so, can you share why?” and “Do the signs of concern you saw in Jesse’s friends remind you of issues you have seen before?” These are probing questions that warrant thoughtful, vulnerable answers. If the zee group meeting had simply been devoted to discussing signs of distress we have seen in friends and what we did or didn’t do about it, I suspect we could have easily filled up the full hour. Such a discussion would be challenging but valuable and certainly would have fallen flat if attempted in the space of five minutes.
There were eighteen discussion questions in total, some of which would require more discussion than others, but, undeniably, an appropriate and comprehensive tackling of all of those questions in an hour, let alone 20-30 minutes, would have been impossible. Some questions could raise an ethical debate—for instance, this one: “Out of Jesse’s friends, Travis was the one who caused Jesse the highest concern. Do you agree that Travis’s behavior was the most worrisome, and why?” My immediate reaction to this question is discomfort; how can one truly rank individuals struggling with mental health by how “worrisome” they are, without risking the minimization of some students’ struggles? Pain cannot and should not be compared on a sliding scale. Furthermore, some of Jesse’s other friends—the less “worrisome” ones who were ignored in light of Travis’s struggles—felt more relatable to myself and my peers, as well as comparatively more realistic.
The University also chose not to provide RCAs with specific instructions for facilitating student engagement with Kognito. The RCAs could choose to have students complete the Kognito simulation asynchronously either all together in a Zoom meeting room or in separate breakout rooms. As a result, student experience varied enormously. Students who completed the course asynchronously reported that they were unable to discuss the material with their RCA or peers. A student whose group completed the program all together reported embarrassment that they needed more time to get through the material than other students. As a student in separate breakout rooms, I felt lucky that my partner was as engaged as I was. Many students, even those who chose to show up, were highly disengaged, keeping their video and microphones off for the duration of the program or not participating in discussion.
Unlike the “Not Anymore” and “AlcoholEdu” programs, which were completed during the summer, Kognito felt more like a University afterthought. Many students were unable to attend due to academic pressures or didn’t bother to attend due to a lack of communication from their RCA. In a brief GroupMe discussion, one classmate wrote “I stopped going to all my rca/zee stuff like 2 weeks ago” (a message which was liked six times), another wrote, “ive got a whole lot of draft to write” and another wrote, “fuck kognito day i got a paper to write[.]” One of the more positive comments was “my RCA is cool i cant bail on her lik[e] that[.]” Essentially, students who felt overwhelmed by academic pressures chose to not attend the program, and many of those who did chose to simply out of pity for their RCA.
And lastly, some of the information provided in the program seemed assumptive or even inexplicable to me. For instance, I was told that activities such as going for walks or watching beloved TV shows are not self-care but “self-soothing” and should be eschewed in favor of “real” self-care activities like “make time for self-reflection,” “give yourself praise and love,” and “be optimistic and hopeful.” These activities are vague, and, to a student struggling with self-hatred or depression, such suggestions could feel unattainable. Other self-care suggestions indicated to me that the creators of Kognito envision that all students completing this course are of a certain economic status. Activities like “day trips or vacations,” “eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re satisfied,” “eat healthily,” “massage,” and “get medical care when needed” all assume that students taking the course have the option to take vacations, get massages, and access however much “healthy” food or medical care they need at any given time. In reality, many Princeton students have financial struggles. Students who are living on campus due to an unstable home environment may not be able to choose what they eat. Healthcare is notoriously expensive in this country, and many insurance plans do not cover or inadequately cover mental healthcare, both in the U.S. and outside. Reminding students of their lack of opportunities in the context of self-care seems to feed into the notion that self-care is a luxury only accessible to the wealthy.
I am overjoyed that Princeton University has decided to make mental health programming a part of the First Year Residential Experience. I am grateful that I was able to participate in this programming, and I know that some students walked away with wholly positive experiences. That said, there is no denying the room for improvement. Despite its bold advertising, Kognito was unable to provide students with the confidence to take care of their mental health. It was also unable to provide relatable scenarios, spark human discussion, and keep students engaged.
The University chose not to adapt to our changing environment, provided insufficient instructions to the RCAs, and deliberately did not make Kognito a priority like “AlcoholEdu” and “Not Anymore.” Suicide is the second most common cause of death among college students, outpacing alcohol by a noticeable margin. With Kognito, Princeton was checking a box. But checked boxes don’t save lives. This is an opportunity for Princeton to be a pioneer in higher education mental health programming and to set its students up for the best academic, interpersonal, and psychological success.