This article examines the benefits and drawbacks of being in a fraternity or sorority.
How Does Greek Life Affect Mental Health?
The Pros and Cons
Is Greek life good or bad for college students’ mental health? Overall, there are both benefits and drawbacks to joining a sorority or fraternity. Greek organizations (so called because of the Greek letters used for their names) can create a sense of belonging and support. But they can also involve traumatic hazing practices and foster a lifestyle that’s detrimental to young adult well-being.
How Many College Students Participate in Greek Life?
About 750,000 students on college campuses currently belong to a fraternity or sorority. Furthermore, Greek organizations have more than 9 million alumni in the United States. The percentage of students who participate in Greek life is as high as 75% at some colleges. But in most colleges with a strong Greek life, about one-third of students participate.
Moreover, same-sex fraternities and sororities aren’t the only options anymore. Many college campuses now have gender-inclusive Greek organizations that are co-ed and welcome trans and nonbinary college students as well as men and women. This is an important step toward making Greek life less exclusive.
Is Greek Life Good or Bad for Mental Health?
Research doesn’t reveal a clear answer to that question. Most studies show minimal or no difference in college student mental health for young adults who belong to frats or sororities vs. those who do not.
For example, in one survey, college students affiliated with Greek organizations reported slightly higher well-being. But the depression and anxiety scores of affiliated and unaffiliated college students were nearly identical. Another study examined Greek life and mental health among sorority members. This data showed no significant difference in anxiety and depression symptoms in students living in sorority housing vs. other college women who lived in non-sorority housing.
The fact is that college students’ mental health is suffering overall. One poll found that mental health struggles were the top stressor for 50% of college students in 2023, with 70% experiencing mental health issues. Among the 96,000 students surveyed in the most recent Inside Higher Ed study, 44% reported symptoms of depression, 37% reported anxiety, and 15% said they have seriously considered suicide. These are the highest rates in the survey’s 15-year history.
The Mental Health Downsides of Sororities and Fraternities
So, do Greek organizations help or hurt the many young adults experiencing mental health struggles? That depends on the person as well as the rules and culture of the Greek organization itself.
First, let’s look at the reasons why Greek life is bad for mental health for some college students. Here are the most important factors that young adults should consider when considering whether to become Greek life members.
Increased Substance Abuse Risk
Fraternity parties and hazing rituals often involve excessive use of alcohol and other substances. Research shows that college students in Greek organizations are more likely to drink, smoke cigarettes, and use marijuana and other drugs. College students who lived in fraternity houses have the highest levels of binge drinking and marijuana use compared to non–Greek members and young adults who are not in college.
The heavy drinking and substance abuse that are part of fraternity life can trigger depression and anxiety or make existing mental health conditions worse. In addition, Greek members are at higher risk of developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD). In fact, in one study, 45% of Greek members who lived in a fraternity house during college reported AUD symptoms at age 35. Therefore, Greek life may not be a good fit for a college student who has risk factors for alcohol addiction, such as a family history of alcoholism, or who has a hard time resisting peer pressure to drink and do drugs.
Mental Health Consequences of Hazing
Hazing is what most people think of when they think about Greek life. The term refers to the initiation rituals imposed on college students seeking membership to a fraternity or sorority. Common hazing rituals include imbibing large quantities of alcohol, which is extremely dangerous. According to one report, there have been more than 50 deaths in hazing incidents since 2000.
However, in addition to the physical risks of hazing, the practice can also have long-term mental health consequences for college students. College hazing rituals can be a form of bullying that creates shame, humiliation, and fear. And for some college students, those feelings don’t go away after the hazing is over. The mental health effects of hazing can include:
· Post-traumatic stress disorder
· Emotional instability
· Problems sleeping
· Sense of being out of control and helpless
· Decline in academic performance
· Difficulties in relationships
· Withdrawal from activities and social interactions
· Loss of confidence and sense of self
· Suicidal thoughts
Even when recruitment doesn’t involve hazing, it can cause intense anxiety. First-year college women being recruited for sororities report negative effects on mood, well-being, and social support during the recruitment process. Feelings of belonging improved after being accepted into the sorority—but mostly among women who were already more popular and social.
Higher Sexual Assault Risk
College students in Greek organizations are more likely to have sex under the influence of alcohol or drugs. And that increases the risk of sexual violence and having unprotected or unwanted sex. Moreover, alcohol is banned at sororities on many college campuses but not at fraternities. That means sorority women go to fraternity houses to drink, where they are more vulnerable to sexual assault.
As a result, female students in sororities are more than three times as likely to experienced sexual assault, rape, or attempted rape than non-affiliated students, according to one study. Another study puts that number even higher, stating that sorority members are 74% more likely to experience rape than non-affiliated college women. Greek-affiliated women were also twice as likely to experience sexual harassment. And men in fraternities experienced higher rates of nonconsensual sexual contact as well—nearly four times higher than non-affiliated male college students.
Mental Health Benefits of Greek Life
In addition to the cons, there are some strong pros of Greek life. In fact, according to a 2021 Gallup survey conducted on behalf of the National Panhellenic Conference and the North American Interfraternity Conference, 84% of alumni who were affiliated with Greek organizations have positive feelings about them. If they had to do it all over again, they said, they would still join their fraternity or sorority. Here are some of the positive mental health impacts of Greek life.
A Sense of Belonging
Perhaps the biggest benefit of Greek life in college is the sense of belonging and connection it creates. A Greek organization can be like a family. College students gain a built-in friend group and often live in the sorority or fraternity house with their “sisters” or “brothers.” They may feel more comfortable turning to one another for support if they’re experiencing stress or having a mental breakdown.
Consequently, participation in Greek life can help ward off loneliness in college, which is surprisingly common. College students can feel even lonelier when they’re around lots of people but can’t find a place they belong. And chronic loneliness can trigger depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Therefore, feeling connected in college is vital for mental health.
Higher Engagement in College
Being part of a Greek organization is linked to higher engagement in college, indicating greater well-being and motivation. The Gallup poll found that Greek-affiliated alumni were more likely to report feeling supported by faculty and mentors during their time in school. And they were three times as likely to have participated in experiential learning.
In addition, fraternity and sorority alumni stay engaged after graduating. They are more likely to donate to their alma mater, and they tend to recommend their college or university to others more often than nonaffiliated alumni do.
Better Well-Being After Graduation
Finally, another mental health benefit of Greek life may be higher well-being after graduation. Results from the same Gallup poll showed the following rates of well-being in various aspects of alumni’s lives:
· 62% reported career well-being vs. 34% of non-affiliated alumni
· 66% reported community well-being vs. 36% non-affiliated
· 62% reported social well-being vs. 40% non-affiliated
· 51% reported financial well-being vs. 32% non-affiliated
· 53% reported physical well-being vs. 24% non-affiliated
These results could be attributable in part to the ongoing connections that fraternity and sorority members maintain after graduation through their Greek organizations. The bonds created in Greek life can result in lifelong friendships and create job opportunities through networking with other Greek members. Moreover, alumni continue to feel a sense of belonging to a larger community.
How to Maintain Mental Health While Participating in Greek Life
Ultimately, whether Greek life is good or bad for mental health comes down to the specific organization and the individual college student. Young adults who are on the fence should research well and consider the pros and cons. Frats and sororities aren’t the only way to feel connected: College campuses also have affinity groups, clubs, and other student organizations that can create a sense of belonging.
For college students who do decide to join Greek organizations, here are a few tips for maintaining good mental health:
· Broaden your college experience by making friends and exploring activities outside Greek life.
· Learn ways to drink less in college rather than giving in to peer pressure.
· Practice as much self-care as possible, including getting enough sleep at least a few nights a week and being physically active.
· Find out what services are available at your college counseling center, and don’t hesitate to seek help if you’re feeling overwhelmed.
Article courtesy of Newport Health