Prospect Garden, photographed in 2018
Princeton University, Office of Communications, Nick Barberio
‘There is relief in hearing your experiences resonate, to not be alone in experiencing depression or anxiety’

Editor’s note: If you or someone you know may have suicidal thoughts, you can call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or chat online at

Since we launched this column last month, there has been a second student death on campus this academic year. As an adviser, a parent, an alum, and just as a person, it feels impossible and essential to contextualize so much loss. The paradox for students — to acknowledge the loss, and to carry on with relentless daily activities — is a heavy lift. 

According to the American College Health Association, approximately 77% of undergraduates in the spring of 2022 were experiencing moderate to serious psychological distress. That’s a staggering number. At Princeton, structural and cultural elements like the schedule, plus toxic perfectionism, contribute to the storm. Students are advocating for a wellness space in the campus center, the elimination of copays for therapy visits, ongoing mental health luncheons, and calling for more clarity at intersection of academics and mental health. As I listen closely to students with an eye on best practices, I am compelled to ask: What else can we, as alumni, do to support students? I wonder if there is an immediate match to be made between alums’ desire to provide support and students’ need to see more than glossy, curated images of orange-and-black-tinted alumni life. 

In the summer of 2022, the Class of 1991 was shaken by the deaths of two beloved classmates, Chris Shea, who died by suicide, and Chris Stevens, who died by accidental overdose after decades of mental health struggles. Members of the Class, many with college-age children — sought to acknowledge the epidemic of loneliness, the prevalence of suicide, and the need for mental health awareness. United by empathy and Princeton identity, the class wanted to make a difference.

Caring Tigers took shape quickly, a grassroots effort to do something. Was it a support group? A speaker series? A formal organization? Not really. But if you ask Cressey Belden ’91, one of the volunteer leaders, “it has been an extraordinary conversation.” 

For the last year, Caring Tigers has been a monthly Zoom meeting promoted by a class Facebook page. Tigers of all stripes — physicians, counselors, educators, lawyers, those who want to connect — have spoken about resilience, self-care, failure, and more. These are not your grandfather’s Reunions topics, but isn’t this how new narratives are built? The calls are meant to be an hour long, but Tigers linger.

Noah Luch ’24, a student leader of the campus Mental Health Committee, commented that “it helps current students to know alumni are not just showing up in celebration at games or Reunions, but also in solidarity around struggle. Hearing about these alumni conversations shows a different, really kind version of what it means to be a Princetonian.” 

On the most recent call, Dave Mills ’91 spoke about self-criticism and failure. He described his career uncertainty as a religion major, wrestling with the culture of achievement and the fallacy that law or medicine were the only acceptable paths, how grad school and a series of jobs didn’t fit, and how existential doubt contributed to depression and anxiety. Dave also shared the ways that therapy and his wife’s support helped him heal. 

By resume, as chief financial officer of a United Way, Dave embodies Princeton in the service of humanity. But in the space of Caring Tigers, his narrative includes a more complex backstory. Hearing about his journey, others shared career and parental angst and found common, bumpy ground. As one classmate reflected, “it can be the hardest part of life after Princeton, the standards we hold, if we don’t give ourselves a little grace.” 

Dave is humble, relatable, and funny. A few years ago, he was a contestant on Wheel of Fortune. He hosted a watch party and invited local friends. As it turned out, he came in third place (of three). A guy he knew casually approached him, astounded that Dave would invite all these people when he didn’t win. “I realized that when the culture makes losing shameful — even on a silly TV show — we have lost a chance to laugh at ourselves. That’s the real shame.”

Dave explained, “I have spent decades unlearning the tendency to be self-critical. Being my own worst critic maybe helped me get to Princeton, but it is exhausting. I found when I could name it — that self-critical voice — I could give myself a break.” There is relief in hearing your experiences resonate, to not be alone in experiencing depression or anxiety. Dave sums it up this way: “I don’t want to feel lonely, or want my college friends to feel lonely. It is priceless to be honestly connected.”

We should harness the concept of Caring Tigers to meet current students where they are. Virtually or on campus, we can make room for these conversations across generations. We can expand some sessions to include current students, and talk about whatever might help them gain perspective and build resilience. Would other classes join? It is something we, as alumni, can do. Caring Tigers is a riff on what Sen. Bill Bradley ’65 describes in his documentary Rolling Along: “You tell the truth about who you are.” In this moment, truth feels like the gift students are yearning for from us.

For more information about Caring Tigers, please contact Cressey Belden ’91. Campus Resources: Princeton USG & CPS Mental Health Resources; CPS Cares Line (for students) 609-258-3141; Carebridge (for faculty and staff).