Fraternities and sororities have a lot of stereotypes that they are constantly fighting. To the outside world these organizations can come across as superficial cliques that are unnecessarily selective and just want to party. There is a lot of attention paid to individual chapters that are involved in hazing, substance abuse and racism. Greek life tends to only get publicity when a chapter does something negative, which furthers the stereotypes.
Members of fraternities and sororities know that their organizations are a lot more than what they are perceived to be. Sororities raise millions of dollars for cancer research. Fraternities do an endless amount of service projects to benefit others. Members of these organizations refer to each other as brothers and sisters, because they are an extension of family. The sense of community felt inside fraternities and sororities also contributes to members experiencing long-term happiness. A recent survey showed that members of fraternities report higher levels of happiness later in life.
Fraternities and sororities aren't perfect, but they have the potential to equip their members to handle mental health challenges better than other parts of a college campus. Twenty-five percent of college students experience a mental health disorder each year. Fraternity and sorority chapters are affected by suicide, substance abuse, mental health disorders and other extreme issues.
I'm not a member of a fraternity, but as an ardent mental health advocate, I am impressed with the steps organizations are taking to address this issue. Pi Kappa Phi supports fraternity members with risk management resources and access to free counselors. Zeta Tau Alpha offers a first of its kind full mental health curriculum to give members the tools they need to address their mental health and that curriculum was recently taught at Lady Gaga's Born This Way Retreat. Tau Delta Phi partnered with Active Minds to educate their members. Kappa Alpha Theta has, Sisters Supporting Sisters, to raise mental health awareness. Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Sigma Chi are working with The Jed Foundation on tips for suicide prevention.
Every sector of campus life has a long way to go until they're going to be able to fully address the mental health needs of students. However, here are three reasons Greek life has the potential to be a great place to focus on mental health.
1. Support -- It can be a struggle for college students to find friends and create a strong social network. Fundamental concerns for students who are dealing with mental health issues are isolation, not having consistent contact with anyone and no one is there to help them. Members of fraternities and sororities have built in support. They have someone to check in on them, encourage them to go to classes and help them work through whatever difficulty they may be experiencing. Each chapter also has an adult advisor and they are developing a protocol to follow when a member is showing signs of distress.
2. Connection -- Being connected to something larger than yourself as you deal with any mental health challenge is really helpful. Greek life offers chances to volunteer and feel like you're part of a community. That type of connection can make a huge difference when someone is in the depths of depression or working on other problems in their lives.
3. Shared Values -- Students become members in individual fraternities and sororities because they like what that chapter offers. They want to enter into an organization with brothers or sisters who have shared interests and perspectives. The common ties of brotherhood or sisterhood should also matter when someone in the chapter isn't doing well. Caring about members with mental health challenges should be an extension of what led someone to join his or her organization. Making this topic a priority in Greek life will save lives and enhance emotional development.