Depression in Greek Life at Longwood University

By: Gabrielle Espiritu

“I’ll tell you a story, I pledged an off campus sorority my sophomore year and that’s when I got really bad. I quit after two weeks. Nobody knows why I quit. I never told anybody. Everybody’s like ‘why’d you quit?’ and I just said ‘I don’t know it just wasn’t for me’ but the real reason was because my depression was so bad I couldn’t handle being hazed at the same time. I would go to their events and they would haze me and I would be fine and then right afterwards I would cry everyday. All night. I was constantly crying. I was super affected by the hazing so I just couldn’t do it. I thought it wasn’t worth it. So I thought I just wasn’t going to do Greek life.” Stated a unanimous member of a sorority.

Sorority women and fraternity men often get a preconceived stereotype that they should be acting a certain way but what people fail to realize is that many are fighting a secret war within themselves.

Depression within Greek organizations is not a topic that is talked about a lot on universities. But why is this? In a recent study by The Wall Street Journal, the rise in depression on college campuses is a cause for concern. Yet the stigma surrounding the words “mental health” prevents the topic from even being discussed not only among the general student population but within Greek organizations as well.

Statistics showing depression among students on college campuses. Image courtesy of The Wall Street Journal.

Many times negative connotations are associated with the term mental health when in reality it is defined as our emotional, psychological and social well-being.

The associate director for fraternity and sorority life at Longwood University, Wolfgang Acevedo commented on the stigma surrounding the term mental health. “We have to do a better job of breaking down the stigma of mental health first in the general student population because we are all members of our university first and then it can definitely start breaking down in sororities and fraternities.”

Longwood University has three different governing councils: College Panhellenic Council (CPC), Inter-Fraternity Council (IFC), and the Longwood National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) which all together house over twenty Greek organizations.

According to Longwood University’s website, approximately 17 percent of students are involved in a social fraternity or sorority.

In a survey done with 90 participants on Longwood’s campus who are members of either a sorority or fraternity, 90 percent answered ‘yes’ that they do believe there are many depressed members of fraternities and sororities who are not willing to admit it. Only 38 percent of those participants stated that their organizations actually require them to participate in extensive programs on mental health and wellness. While 77 percent said ‘yes’ they do believe that sororities and fraternities should required more programs directly relating to mental health and wellness.

Dr. Maureen Walls-Mckay, the director of the counseling center at Longwood University responded to her thoughts on those statistics. “Those statistics surprise me and disappoint me a little bit. I think that nationally society takes on an issue and they don’t take on the broader context which could be mental health issues. When we talk about substance abuse sometimes there are broader mental health concerns. I think society just grabs onto a single issue and we try to tackle that one issue and neglect to look at the broader context so I think Longwood might be within that realm.”

Out of the survey, nearly half of the students stated that they would classify themselves as being depressed before coming to college. Depression is defined as a serious medical condition in which a person feels very sad, hopeless and unimportant and often is unable to live in a normal way.

When asked if the unanimous sorority member felt like there should be more programs about mental health she agreed and stated that, “if you open up its easier for people to know, it’s like ‘oh she has it and I can talk to her, I know I’m not the only one.’ It feels good knowing that you’re not the only one out there because usually you do.”

There are resources out there to get the conversation going. Behind Happy Faces is a program developed by Ross Szabo geared toward high school and college students in regards to taking charge of your own mental health.

Szabo stated “I think the biggest goal I had was to normalize mental health, instead of isolating mental illness. My hope is that my curriculum allows people to feel more like themselves and gives them a chance to really not feel that stigma or the stereotypes about being who they really are.”

College years have long been associated with many psychological stresses. Students are having trouble finding jobs while parents are in a financial crunch to afford their schooling and all this knowledge is weighing on the students with the pressure to major in a field that is hiring vs. one they like. These social expectations can become overwhelming and lead to depression.

In Greek life, there are also social demands, financial obligations, academic pressures as well as trying to fight the stereotypes of being associated with a sorority or fraternity. The mental health of those who are in Greek organizations is often overlooked because of the social support system that is in place.

Acevedo stated, “People associate feeling okay socially to being okay mentally. I think that the reality is that we’re not asking the right questions. We’re not asking our men and women in our groups to talk about it. And I think it’s about the environment you create.”

NCHA Comparison Data Summary. These statistics compare a general student to those involved in Greek life. Image courtesy of Google.

In the fall 2011 National College Health Association Comparison Data Summary, those students who are associated with Greek life felt that these factors affected their individual academic performance higher in almost every category.

For this 2014–2015 academic year 512 individual clients were seen at the counseling center at Longwood University for a total of 1,970 counseling sessions. There are currently no statistics directly correlating these numbers with those associated with Greek life.

Dr. Walls-McKay stated, “we keep statistics on class status, veteran status, and other types of demographics but we have not kept records on Greek life involvement. But we just had that conversation about a month ago so we’re going to add that to our demographic information in the fall.”

Phone interview with Ross Szabo in regards to mental health within Greek organizations.

Szabo stated, “because the stigma is so high a lot of people have come to campus never having discussed their mental health and in Greek life there are some more pressing concerns. The media is constantly focusing on sexual assault, the drug use, and the alcohol and as an organization you have to respond to that. You have to be like ‘okay well this is happening let’s talk about it, lets do it’.”

More than 25 percent of college students have been diagnosed or treated by a professional for a mental health condition within the past year. Fraternity and sorority chapters are affected by suicide, substance abuse, mental health disorders and other extreme issues.

“I think more people are depressed and might not even realize it. I didn’t know it until my parents told me about it. I was like ‘what the hell is depression? What do you mean I’m depressed? I don’t know what that is’. It took me a while to get used to just talking to people about it. Overall, I don’t tell people. It’s embarrassing. I’m afraid they’re going to judge me for it, I’m afraid people are going to think I’m crazy for it, it’s not something that’s easy to open up to. I know I shouldn’t be ashamed of my depression but I am.” — sorority member

According to The Wall Street Journal, with more students who are arriving already taking medication or having seen therapists, colleges are struggling to navigate their roles in this highly sensitive area, balancing student safety with financial, privacy and liability concerns.

Szabo went on about this issue “I believe that a lot of organizations are not afraid of doing anything they just don’t know what to do. They don’t want to open Pandora’s box they don’t want to be responsible for trying to do something and having it not work out. It is a really delicate topic.”

Depression and suicidal tendencies are often more difficult to identify and address among fraternity men. Men traditionally are not trained in the skills that are necessary in dealing with mental health. They are taught to be strong and go it alone. Because of this socialization, they do not know how to help a friend who may be exhibiting one or more of the above symptoms.

Image was obtained from an article titled “Students in Crisis: Depression, Anxiety on the Rise” Image courtesy of Kalman Zabarsky for Boston University Photography.

According to a recent study, 80 percent of women who have committed suicide had originally sought help from a therapist while only 50 percent of men sought help.

Dr. Walls-McKay stated, “I think there is that gender difference where men probably do have maybe increased stigma surrounding that mental health issue and more hesitancy to reach out. Maybe because of gender issues like ‘oh I’m a man I’m not supposed to need that kind of thing’.”

Acevedo commented “We focus a lot on urgency and not necessary what’s best for our students. I think that the little peeling away at the onion kind of thing of talking about men’s health. Talking about what it means to be a healthy man, talking about confidence in women and all those things that the counselors are starting to do is going to make it more socially acceptable to talk about bigger issues like being hazed, depression and how it has affected the individual. Once you start peeling away at it, it becomes easier to talk about.”

The Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life will be teaming up with the Wellness Center in the fall with the hopes of creating a needs assessment program. It’s easy to group all the chapters on campus together but to really survey them individually to figure out which groups are struggling with what issues can allow them to get a better reign on the problems.

The counseling center at Longwood University. Image courtesy of Google.

Another suggestion the Wellness Center has talked about is peer helping. Dr. Walls-McKay stated it “would be a great help to the Greek life community where there is some peer training so that students involved in Greek life could have a person within their organization that might have specialized peer help training in that area so that they can go to that person and that peer would provide some consultation, education and referral to services on campus.”

Acevedo commented on his thoughts about partnering up with the Wellness Center on campus. “I think our work with partnering with the wellness center will start to bridge the gap. I think that because there has been such a rise in students in general having those issues I totally understand and see that it’s something that our groups are having trouble with. My work particularly with fraternities has shown that even though it is still as prevalent in men, they are less likely to talk about it then our women are so that definitely concerns me.”

There are Greek organizations that have made the strive to open up and start the conversations about mental health. Pi Kappa Phi, Zeta Tau Alpha, Tau Delta Phi, Kappa Alpha Theta, Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Sigma Chi are among the list.

Sisters Supporting Sisters logo from Kappa Alpha Theta. Image courtesy of Google.

Even with the startling statistic that nearly 25 percent of all college students are depressed, it’s easy to feel like no one can relate to you. People love to talk about their fraternities and sororities but nobody wants to admit they are struggling when no one is around. Depression feeds off this kind of silence which leads individuals to believe they are the only one.

Just by talking about mental health is taking a step forward and it will help break down the stigmas that are associated with the term. Given all of the pressures that are associated with higher education, it’s important for colleges to bolster their mental health infrastructure within Greek organizations to help students in need before it’s too late.