The average age of a college president today is sixty. That makes them too young to have participated in the major social movements of the 1960s and not too old to be keenly aware of the emotional and mental health problems reported by young people today. These leaders are now navigating the minefield of issues laid bare by student protests over the war in Gaza, including the internal and external political pressures that have pushed them into defensive positions. As they contend with conflict in the most public of ways, they should make a connection amid the chaos to something most have long advocated for: the wellbeing and personal development of their students as they stand in solidarity around an issue for which they care deeply.  

Every protest movement has a wide range of viewpoints, and this does not excuse any of the bad actors or extreme views on any side of this issue. But for someone who has reported on college student mental health and wellbeing throughout the “college mental health crisis,” I cannot help but link the most active campus protests we’ve seen in years with some of the elements of emotional wellbeing we hope our young people will experience – agency, empathy, belonging and sense of purpose. The absence of these elements has created the loneliness and isolation that Surgeon General Vivek Murthy included in his young adult mental health advisory of 2021 and his book Together, wherein he discusses America’s loneliness epidemic and the healing power of human connection. 

For over a decade, college students have reported a significant increase in anxiety and depression, along with high rates of loneliness, plateauing during the pandemic and remaining prevalent today. Gen Z students, who have been dubbed “The Anxious Generation,” are also feared to lack independence, to be overly tethered to their parents, and to be unable to advocate for themselves. College administrators have addressed this problem in myriad ways, from increasing mental health support resources to experimenting with co-curricular programs designed to help students build resilience and a sense of belonging. First-year programs now frequently include reflection about purpose and meaning as a way to center anxious students and give them the grace of seeing themselves in the bigger picture. Affinity groups, often organized by the school, help socially wary young adults find their people. 

The students united in protest, some in traditionally opposing camps, are their own curated affinity group.

There is a connection here between students’ fervent reaction to the war in Gaza and their social and emotional health that is understandably buried in the severity of the issue and the thorny consequences of the protests. Participation in protests can improve students’ sense of belonging and identity, leading to positive mental health outcomes. “In higher education, we want students to feel like they belong to a community. Participating in activism, such as protests, allows students to be in a community with other people who share their same values and can provide them with meaningful connections to others,” wrote Dr. Samantha Smith in an op-ed for LearningWell.  

The literature is particularly robust on the connection between purpose and wellbeing. Research indicates that having a purpose in life is significantly associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety and may increase resilience after exposure to negative events. To the extent that their method of protest aligns with their good intent, we should recognize that the majority of these students are standing up for the humanity of others — and that is a good thing for a generation accused of obsessing about their images on social media. 

The more the movement grows, the more valid these arguments become. Given the momentum, administrators can no longer view this as the predictable behavior of certain student groups. There is something bigger going on. Perhaps most promising is that the movement is entirely student-driven. The students united in protest, some in traditionally opposing camps, are their own curated affinity group. Their passion is evidence that the teenagers who finished high school in their bedrooms and on their screens have learned to find their outside voices. Let this be a positive element in an otherwise complex and difficult leadership challenge.