Taking Care of Your Mental Health When You’re Joining a Fraternity or Sorority

By Annie Midori Atherton

Before starting college, I was intimidated by entering a huge campus with thousands of new people. The brochures advertised happy, tight-knit groups of friends that I dreamed of joining, but I worried it’d be hard to find my way. 

So I went through formal recruitment to join a sorority and, fortunately, by the end of the week I was warmly welcomed into one. Going through recruitment was emotionally hard at times. Would I be liked and accepted? How could I make a good impression on so many people while also trying to be myself? Then there was the fear that if I didn’t end up in the “right” house, I wouldn’t have a good college experience.

“The element of the unknown can be stressful,” says Ashly Horton, assistant director of sorority and fraternity life at Ohio State University. “When you’re going through primary recruitment, there are a lot of options that dwindle down throughout the process. That surprise ending can be a lot for folks.”

My ending is a happy one. I met many amazing women—some of whom remain my closest friends—but it would have been helpful to have a guide to managing the stress of the whole process. Here’s one I hope will help you. 

Take Care of Yourself

“It’s really important to try, to the best of your ability, to mitigate outside stress,” Horton says. Don’t let “the basics get lost in the shuffle.”

  • Ground yourself in basic routines that make you feel good.
  • Get support from family and friends.
  • Stay hydrated and eat nutritious meals.
  • Get good sleep and move your body. 
  • Work into your schedule any activities that help you relieve stress.

Take Unnecessary Things Off Your Plate

“Try not to take on too many other responsibilities,” Horton says. Think through all the things you do and figure out which ones you can step away from temporarily and which ones (like academics) you will need to carve out time for during recruitment.

Know Your Resources

Many colleges and universities have a Fraternity and Sorority Life Office with staff, like Horton, who can serve as a resource and support throughout recruitment. 

Find out if your campus offers counseling services, wellness centers, or other support in case you need to talk through the stress of the process. These are good resources to have in your back pocket throughout college, for any time you need extra support for any reason. 

Keep an Open Mind

“A lot of times, folks don’t end up in an organization they’d heard about before coming in,” Horton says. “Think about it in terms of mutual fit rather than focusing only on getting into a specific organization you’ve set your sights on. I’ve seen many students initially be disappointed but come to eventually love the organizations they joined.”

“For culturally based sororities and fraternities, there can be a different kind of pressure if you’re focusing all your energy on potentially joining only one organization,” Horton says. Think through what your game plan will be if it doesn’t work out. “Give yourself some grace,” Horton says, and see whether:

  • There are other organizations that could offer a similar experience.
  • Waiting and trying at a different time is an option. 
  • Other groups and activities on campus can provide some of what you’re looking for.

Ask All the Questions

“As conversations are flowing, see if you can figure out what the organization means to its active members,” Horton says. Of course, there are the usual questions, such as, “What’s your major?” But digging a little deeper can give you a better sense of what it feels like to be a member. Some ideas:

  • What’s your favorite part of being in the organization?
  • Are there any areas that are challenging?
  • How do you support one another?
  • What kinds of group activities do you do together?
  • Do you feel you have support balancing academics with group activities? 
  • What philanthropies does your organization support?

Pay Attention to Yourself and Your Needs

It can be easy to get lost in the membership of the group and what that means or represents on campus,” says Melissa Ruiz, a public speaker and coach who has led student services programs at several colleges. “Keep your goals top of mind, be true to yourself, and find a group that challenges, accepts, and respects you.”

Brandon Hadi was skeptical of fraternities when he entered the University of Washington as a pre-med student in 2012. But after chatting with members of a house founded by Asian-Americans during a time when they were excluded from historically white organizations, Hadi says he “felt a sense of belonging that I didn’t realize I’d been longing for. It has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”

Know It's OK to Walk Away

“There are a lot of other things happening in college,” Horton says. “Sorority and fraternity life does not frame the entire experience. If you decide it’s not for you, there’s no shame in stepping away.” 

You can also wait. Horton worked with a woman who waited to join a sorority because she needed to focus on improving her academic performance. “Although that meant she was only in the sorority for two years, she ended up becoming chapter president and thrived,” Horton says.

Stay in Touch with Yourself

If you decide to join a chapter, it can be both exciting and overwhelming. A fraternity or sorority, like any group, can bring pressure to conform.

“This is where it can help to have done some personal reflection,” says Tiffany O’Meara, director of outreach services, counseling, and psychological services at the University of California, San Diego. “Know that it’s OK to assert yourself and set boundaries when you don’t feel comfortable.”

O’Meara stressed the importance of communicating with others. “If they are really your brothers and sisters,” she says, “trust that they will support you and respect your boundaries.”

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