Engaging Student Activists with Empathy

by Kendall Coffman, MS, Marriage and Family Therapist in Westerville, Ohio

Student activists are on the frontlines of almost every social or political movement. They create conversations, push boundaries, demand action and facilitate change. This intentional, or even unintentional, leap into the heavy work of activism has the potential to cause lasting emotional fatigue, exacerbated anxiety, and even interrupt a college students’ ability to safely navigate through their college experience. It is crucial for educators and therapists to be aware of what college students are doing and to provide an empathetic space for them.

History of Student Activism

To understand the impact of activism on mental health and calls for justice at all levels, it is crucial to look back at historical contexts.

Greensboro Sit Ins, 1960

After young African American students were denied employment, a civil rights protest was held (More Information on Greensboro Sit In).

1968 University Uprising

There were many factors that influenced this protest. But, most importantly, the student-run protest was focused on a sense of governmental injustice, a disagreement over the draft United States involvement in Vietnam War (More Information on University Uprising).

Santa Barbara Oil Spill, 1969

Three million gallons worth of oil were leaked into the sea, causing the deaths and injuries of more than 9,000 birds. This event sparked student protests and eventually led to the naming Earth Day (More Information on Santa Barbara Oil Spill).

Stonewall, 1969

This was the beginning of more public demonstrations of activism that focused on LGBTQIA+ issues. Students also protested homophobic policies in universities before 1969 (More Information about LGBT+ Protests).

Apartheid Divestment in the 1970s-1980s

These protests were initiated by students from Soweto, South Africa.

Mattress Protest 2012

Emma Sulkowicz (a student at Columbia University) carried her dorm mattress on her back to protest the university’s failure to expel her rapist (More Information on Mattress Protest).

Black Lives Matter, 2013-Present

After Michael Brown, 18 years old, was shot to death by a policeman, three women started Black Lives Matter (Patrisse, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi).

2020 and Mental Health

Covid-19 has made mental health a lot more accessible in the past 14 months. Many of us were forced into quarantine and to limit in-person interaction with others. Tragically, thousands of people all over the globe were forced by Covid-19 to care for sick and dying loved one. The JED Foundation is a non-profit organization that assists teens and young adults in suicide prevention and emotional well-being. In 2020, the JED Foundation collected data about college students and their emotional readiness to attend college. The JED Foundations data shows important trends:

  • 63% of studentsThey say that they Emotional health is worseIt’s now better than before the COVID-19 epidemic.
  • 56% of studentsThese are significant Concerned They are able to take care of their mental health.
  • A large number of students deal with this issue. Anxiety(82%), followed By Social isolation/loneliness(68%). Depression(63%). Concentration problems(62%), It is difficult to copeStress management in a healthy manner (60%).
  • One in five (19%)Students have had suicidal thoughtsIn the last month.
  • Be concerned about racial equityStudents are particularly interested in protests or rallies. 61% of studentsFeeling extremely or Very concernedThis country is experiencing racial unrest.
  • 34%Many students are concerned about the impact of Racial unrest in their communities.

These numbers are a stark reminder that people are literally fighting for the best of their physical and emotional health. These statistics can make it seem hopeless. However, I would argue that these findings provide us with a unique opportunity to show up for people that we know or don’t know yet.

Mental Health and Activism

The emotional exhaustion that comes with student activism and mental health is compounded by the fact that students are often involved in both. Students are not only dealing with the emotional turmoil of the last few years, but are also trying to navigate their identities and the violence they are being subjected to. For example, students of minoritized identities do not have the option to “take a break” from activism, because in many ways they are being forced to organize for their lives and right to simply exist.

What can professionals do to help these student activists? First, I must say that I don’t have all of the answers. I do believe that empathy and story collection are tools that people can use to reshape their worldviews, particularly those who have privileged identities.

Storytelling and empathy

First, I want to say that I don’t believe empathy learning or the ability of hearing a story are the only tools that people in power or privilege can use to support student activists. I would argue instead that empathy is the prerequisite for educators and mental health professionals to support students.

Empathy can be learned. Many people believe that some people are more compassionate than others. Empathy can be learned. Here are four key elements to empathy:

1. Perspective-Taking (or Putting Yourself in someone else’s shoes)

This element is difficult for many people because it requires intention and active emotional adjustment to see a concept that may seem unfamiliar. Perspective-taking does not require that you yourself have experienced the same experience as the other person; instead, it only asks you to find the common thread of emotion that you can pull on while listening to the other person’s story.

2. Listening and staying out of Judgment

Empathy requires us to really listen to what someone is saying. Listen with the goal to understand, rather than criticizing or responding.

3. Recognizing emotions in someone else that you may have felt before

Similar to perspective-taking this step in empathy asks that we search our souls for common emotions that can be pulled on when engaging with someone with different lived experiences. When I worked with clients who voted in Trump, and felt hurt by their friends and connections disowning them, I had to search for a common thread. Although Donald Trump is a person I hate, I know the feeling of being excluded and that was what opened the door to future engagement.

4. Communicate that You Can Recognize This Emotion

Empathy training’s most important component is the ability to track the story you are telling. This involves naming the emotion that is being expressed and stating that it is valid, real, and unquestioned. Telling someone, especially student activists, that they are “too emotional,” or “responding incorrectly” further gaslights the experiences of students who are screaming for their rights.

Our Way Home

It is not easy to learn empathy and be open to hearing the stories of people who are different than you. Storytelling is only one way to weave a new story in our lives. By not taking the opportunity to hear stories and experiences that are different from our own, we do a great disservice to our own souls’ ability to grow and evolve into something better. Poet, humanitarian, and social justice activist Sonya Renee Taylor said it best when she said, “We will not go back to normal. Normal was never normal. Pre-corona, our existence was never normal except that we normalized greedy, inequity and exhaustion, depletion. My friends, we shouldn’t wait to return. We have the chance to make a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”

We can begin to recraft the futures of our world by being better story collectors for student activist. They are the seeds that have been planted to make our world a place that allows for voices to be heard that have been told throughout their entire generations that their stories don’t belong. It’s time for all of us to welcome more stories into our own individual worlds.




© Copyright 2021 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Kendall Coffman, Marriage and Family Therapist granted permission to publish

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Contact Us

Give us a call at (385) 312-0787  or fill in the form below and we will contact you. We endeavor to answer all inquiries within 24 hours on business days.