Is hazing a necessary rite of passage in Greek life, or a terrible tradition that needs to end once and for all?
There can be no justification for hazing, especially after the recent tragic deaths of fraternity pledges at, , and . The horror of hazing has been brought home by the refiling of charges against several Penn State fraternity members in the torturous death last February of , which was recorded on videotape. In response to recent deaths and injuries, some colleges have suspended Greek life activities on campus. Unfortunately, hazing deaths are not new to college campuses but have a been a problem for several years, with 40 deaths in the last decade. The majority of these deaths involved the forced consumption of large amounts of alcohol, but some have involved beatings and other forms of abuse.
What exactly is hazing? According to the organization StopHazing (), it is “any activity expected of someone joining or participating in a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses, or endangers them regardless of a person’s willingness to participate.” Activities may involve alcohol consumption, humiliation, sleep deprivation, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. Hazing is not just a problem of fraternities; half of college students joining clubs, teams, and other organizations experience hazing. In fact, half of young adults have been hazed by the time they graduate from high school.
Given its inherent dangers, we have to wonder, why does hazing continue? The National Public Radio showoffered one answer to this troubling question on its Nov. 15 , “How to Stop Hazing.” Two panel members, a filmmaker and a professor, discussed their own hazing experiences in college fraternities that included being forced to drink too much alcohol, eating noxious products, and being subjected to violence. One of the panel members talked about hazing other people. Both men admitted that the hazing process made them feel closer to their fraternity brothers: They formed lifelong bonds and also became stronger in facing adversity. In many ways, hazing was a masculine rite of passage. Neither panel member condoned the behaviors they were subjected to or participated in, and in fact suggested that college men should find new ways to bond and have a sense of belonging.
Even though the panelists were not promoting hazing, I was struck by their almost fond recollection of these experiences. I, in contrast, have no fond memory of an incident that I would consider medical hazing. During my internship when working on an internal medicine unit, I was ordered back to work after 2 days at home with the flu, although I was still febrile and coughing up a storm. That week, I was punished with an extra night of on-call duty. This incident did not leave me embracing the camaraderie and hardiness of my medical colleagues. It left me more determined than ever to treat peers and trainees with care and compassion, and never to abuse my power.
In our own practices as psychiatrists, we can play a role in helping our young adult male patients avoid hazing experiences, which have the potential to lead to depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, and suicidal behaviors. We can work with our male patients to develop a sense of belonging and an understanding of who they are as men, without putting their lives or others’ lives at risk. In my work as a college counseling center psychiatrist for over 2 decades, I have often addressed the issues of masculinity, friendship, and peer pressure with my male patients. For those of you who work with young adult men, particularly in the college population, here are some tips:
1. Talk with your male patients about healthy versus harmful relationships. No relationship should involve the intentional infliction of physical or emotional pain. Men will acknowledge that a man hitting a girlfriend is abusive. They need to understand that male fraternity brothers hitting each other or forcing someone to drink a large volume of alcohol is equally abusive. Encourage your patients to know their limits and set boundaries if they are asked to do something dangerous to themselves or others.
2. Role play with your patients how to say no to their peers. I did that with a patient who was drinking too much in general with his fraternity brothers. He was afraid they would reject him if he drank less. He was pleasantly surprised when they did not pressure him to drink more, but instead encouraged him to do what is healthy for him.
3. Encourage your patients to have strong social connections on campus. Well-run fraternities can provide these friendship without inflicting pain. Intramural sports, singing groups, bands, and volunteer organizations all provide great ways to connect and also have a sense of accomplishment. Social connections improve grades, physical health, and emotional health.
4. Encourage your male patients to accept who they are, without embracing one stereotype of what it means to be a man. Social media often promotes unattainable physical images, and some male patients will take supplements or even steroids to build up muscle mass. Promote a healthy lifestyle without extremes in exercise and diet. Explore with your patient what it means to be a man in the 21st century, at a time when typical gender roles are being challenged.
5. Listen for cues about your patients’ relationship with their fathers, which have a large impact on how they view masculinity. Many of the male patients I see discuss how they are trying to be more in touch with and expressive about their feelings, after watching their fathers hold in their emotions or use alcohol to numb emotional pain. Some patients have been able to model and encourage a greater openness with their fathers, while others have been met with silence. As a patient is creating his own life story, his father’s history is always in the background.
Should all fraternities be shut down to end the hazing problem? I don’t believe this is the answer. Each campus has a different fraternity culture, and fraternities on many campuses can be a positive force. I have heard young men describe how fraternities encouraged them academically, discouraged excessive drinking, and promoted ethical behavior. But given that abuses have been prevalent on certain campuses, it is incumbent upon universities to enforce safe behaviors. Fraternity brothers who hurt others should be prosecuted, not protected.
The hazing on campuses needs to stop, and we as psychiatrists should talk about this important issue with our patients and sometimes their parents. We can educate our patients about this insidious form of physical and emotional abuse; we can encourage them not to be bystanders when this happens; and we can promote a culture of respect on our campuses.
Hazing is not just a campus but a national cultural problem, as we are finding from the avalanche of news reports about sexual harassment and assault in the political and entertainment worlds. Victims are exposed to abuses and then deterred from reporting them as a condition of staying in and advancing in the professions they love. Hazing is an abuse of power that we as psychiatrists must continue to fight. We should teach our young adult men the mantra that is now being used by some fraternities, “Real men don’t haze.”