Protecting Student Mental Health in the Face of Antisemitism and Islamophobia

A person standing outside in a crowded area holds up a cardboard sign as part of a peaceful protest.

With the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, instances of antisemitism and Islamophobia have risen rapidly in the United States. The Anti-Defamation League reported a 388% increase in antisemitic instances after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, 2023. The Council on American-Islamic Relations reported a 178% increase in anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian bias incidents in the last quarter of 2023.

College campuses have long been homes for student activism and academic debate. The recent months are no exception. Campus leaders have been faced with the challenge of balancing students’ rights for free speech with protecting student safety. Many protests have been nonviolent, but some students have experienced hostile environments, hate speech, and incidents of violence based on perceived or actual religious affiliation or nationality. 

The attacks threaten students’ sense of safety and well-being. Recent research from Penn State’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health found that experiencing discrimination was strongly related to increased general distress, social isolation, and suicidal ideation.

To protect the mental health of all students, The Jed Foundation (JED) suggests colleges and universities take the following actions to engage students and support their mental health during this time and beyond. 

Communicate Clearly 

In moments of uncertainty and fear, letting students know the measures being taken to keep them safe can bring relief and bolster feelings of safety and security.

Share Enhanced Safety and Security Measures

Physical and virtual safety is critical to students’ mental health and emotional well-being. Students should feel safe when they enter classrooms, move through campus, and engage online. Without a sense of physical safety, learning is not possible and mental health declines. 

As campuses make decisions about measures to protect students, they should be clearly communicated to the campus community. Expectations about student conduct — whether it’s in person or online — should be made clear at all times through prominent dissemination of current and enhanced code-of-conduct and anti-harassment policies. 

Disseminate Policies for Reporting Bias Incidents

Clearly define for students what constitutes discrimination, harassment, hate speech, and violence. Equally as important, articulate and consistently apply bias-response protocols to enable students to take action if they experience or observe violations of the campus policies. When institutions outline these processes, they empower students to respond to a harmful situation and help them feel supported. They also help protect students most at risk and promote a sense of overall campus safety, which influences the experiences of all students, not just those directly affected. 

Respond to Student Concerns and Distress 

It can be difficult for students to go about their daily lives amid ongoing protests, and they may benefit from help to process their experiences. Students will have different responses, so support can take many forms.

Facilitate Listening Sessions 

Help students process their emotions and find appropriate support systems by creating facilitated conversations in which they can come together and share their experiences in a supportive environment. Providing students with an avenue to voice their thoughts and feelings can be therapeutic. 

Be mindful not to pathologize students who have been affected. Many students pull from sources of strength within their own communities to navigate difficult times in a healthy way. 

If students express that they feel unsafe, believe them. Validate their feelings, and connect them with appropriate support. Facilitators and students can also be trained to watch for signs that young people are struggling and how to connect them to additional support if needed.

Have Campus Leadership Play an Active Role

The participation of campus leaders, such as the university president and student council representatives, provides assurance to students that their concerns are being taken seriously and empowers them to advocate for the measures they need to feel safe. Campus leaders are well served by being visible at protests when possible — engaging in casual dialogue to listen to and validate students’ concerns. 

Actively Support Student Mental Health  

Students with direct experience with bias, hate crimes, or violence are at increased risk of mental health symptoms, even if they are not the target of current hateful actions. It’s important to acknowledge, however, that attacks on groups of people on campuses can affect the mental well-being of all students.

Promote Campus Connectedness and a Culture of Caring

People have an innate need for belonging, but college students are unique in that this may be the first time they are away from home and less able to rely on their ties to family and friends from afar. It’s essential for colleges to create opportunities for connectedness to help students thrive.

In a connected community, debates with opposing viewpoints are seen as signs of a healthy and diverse community, even if they stir up emotions. Campus leaders are tasked with inviting such debate and free speech while also protecting students and faculty from physical threats, hate speech, and discriminatory taunts.

Empower Students to Work Together for an Improved Campus Climate 

The current political situation is complex. Teaching students how to navigate issues like these will serve the community now and in the future. Consider offering:

  • Conversations between campus leaders and student protesters to make sure their concerns are heard. 
  • Teach-ins on antisemitism and Islamophobia.
  • Workshops to coach students on navigating complex conversations, including explorations of how individuals interpret language differently based on their personal experiences and background. 
  • Bystander-intervention training, so students know how to respond in violent or discriminatory situations.

Depending on the needs of the individual community, campuses may also consider changes or additions to curricular offerings to meet the needs of the moment. 

Enhance Campus Connection Through Celebration of Identities

All human beings feel more connected and supported when they feel seen and understood. Religion and religious communities are often a source of hope and strength for students and a big part of who they are, so it is especially unsettling when it’s the reason for harm directed at them. They may experience feelings of fear, shame, isolation, or anger as a result. 

As difficult as this moment is, it offers a chance to build in programs that celebrate the diverse identities and backgrounds that make up your student body. Consider: 

  • Engaging with student religious community leaders to identify effective ways to increase awareness of religious identities and practices.
  • Offering events and messages that promote ongoing celebration, inclusion, and belonging of these identities.
  • Creating interfaith organizations that can advance understanding across all religions on campus.
  • Implementing curricular changes that incorporate Jewish and Muslim culture and history.

For more information, read and share these resources on combating hate and responding to trauma with your students and faculty.

For additional help, JED can provide consulting support to colleges and universities during this challenging time.