Greek life gets a lot of bad publicity for drinking, drugging, and bad decisions, but Dr. Adam Downs says it’s a symptom of a bigger problem. As a guest on The Mayo Lab Podcast with David Magee, he shares how we can better support fraternities—and all college students.
Oxford, MS — Fraternities have developed a bad rap. While Greek systems have plenty of positive benefits, like opportunities for leadership development, community service, and lifelong friendships, they are more often in the headlines for partying, substance misuse, and scandals. But Dr. Adam Downs says instead of blaming Greek life for these problems, we should equip fraternity students to handle the immense pressures they face.
“Fraternity ‘culture’ isn’t really what leads to bad decisions like excessive partying and substance misuse,” says Dr. Downs, founder of What Good Looks Like, a firm that partners with universities to promote, provide, and support mental wellness in Greek communities and student athletics. “Yes, there are scattered problems, but most young adults in Greek communities are smart, compassionate, kind people. The problem is, fraternity members, and college students in general, don’t have the support they need to create a healthy collegiate experience.”
Dr. Downs is the latest featured guest on The Mayo Lab Podcast with David Magee, which serves as a single source of research-based guidance for parents, educators, and students. (Listen at https://themayolab.com and on Apple and Spotify.) In his episode, he talks about the very real dangers today’s college students face (Greek and otherwise).
“Highly addictive and deadly substances are easily available to them, and they feel pressured to join in with their peers or else ‘miss out’ on the bonding they crave,” says Dr. Downs. “They also face unprecedented levels of depression, anxiety, and suicide ideation. To make things even harder, they are launched into total freedom practically overnight. On their own for the first time, it’s no wonder they make mistakes and struggle.”
The good news is, with the right support, students in Greek communities are far more likely to have positive fraternal and college experiences. Dr. Downs and his team work with fraternity chapters to implement tailored solutions that empower them to create cultures of wellness that will, hopefully, set the example for other students. Here are some key takeaways for parents, educators, and anyone interested in helping students make healthier decisions:
Fraternity members want to be part of the solution. Fraternity brothers witness the bad decisions like excessive drinking and drug use firsthand, and they also have thoughts on what they want to do differently. And despite their youth, students are extremely insightful when it comes to what should change, says Dr. Downs.
“What young people in Greek communities don’t need are lectures and judgment,” adds podcast host and student wellbeing activist David Magee. “Instead of telling them, ‘Don’t do this or that,’ we can find a lot of solutions when we simply ask, ‘What do you want to change?’ and then listen to their answers. You’ll learn more than you already think you know with this method. That’s the power of open-ended questions. Young adults want to feel seen and heard. This is a great way to get the conversation flowing and find real answers in the process.”
They can be educated on the signs that someone is struggling. Students know to call 911 when someone is having an emergency. But we can do a better job of teaching them the signs of substance misuse or mental health disorders that could escalate. For example, if a fraternity brother is showing signs of aggression, other brothers need to know that this can be a sign of depression. If a brother suddenly starts drinking too much or suddenly stops going to class, those are other warning signs or “check engine lights” as Dr. Downs calls them.
As part of their work with What Good Looks Like, wellness coaches form a Wellness Commission that trains students on mental health awareness. The idea is to help them spot struggles in themselves and others and get help before the problem becomes too big to handle.
Teaching young people to recognize when someone is struggling is part of David Magee’s mission as well, and why he started The Mayo Lab Podcast. One of his sons, William, died of an accidental drug overdose. His other son, Hudson, was found by his brothers in his fraternity house nearly dead from an accidental drug overdose and rushed to the hospital. “Hudson’s friends knew in that moment that he needed their help and did the right thing,” says Magee. “But they may not have recognized the red flags over the weeks leading up to his overdose. We can save lives when we help younger generations recognize when their peers need intervention.”
We need to normalize vulnerability—especially in boys and young men. Young men are conditioned to be stoic and resilient instead of showing pain or tears. This needs to change. “Not only do we need to remove the stigma of mental health struggles in our culture, we need to also teach young people it’s okay to talk about their feelings,” says Magee. “Getting what is bothering you off your chest diffuses tension that might otherwise build and lead to bigger problems.”
Brothers can help brothers by “getting a burrito.” It’s not just advisers, chapter leaders, and wellness coaches who can help these young men. They can help each other very effectively on a peer-to-peer level once they are taught the right skills, like the power of creating space and being present for one another. Dr. Downs encourages the students he works with to take a brother who is having a hard time to “get a burrito.” That’s code for “spending time being present with your friend who needs some support right now.”
Improving wellbeing in fraternities spurs academic (and overall) excellence. When students work on improving their wellness, they begin to take pride and ownership in their grades as well as their place in the community. They set expectations around what is and isn’t okay, and adopt new standards for building a new legacy.
The first chapter Dr. Downs worked with was initially failing academically until they came up with a plan to support them in improving their grades. Once again, it started with the important question, “What do you want?” The answers empowered the brothers to make real changes, and for the past two and a half years, they’ve been in the top six, academically, and recently made it all the way up to number two. Their retention rate went from 54 percent to 92 percent. Their GPA is higher than the all-men’s GPA at the university, and it’s higher than the all-Greek GPA. They’ve won multiple local campus awards and improved their standing with the national organization. When they realized that what they inherited didn’t have to be what they left behind, it energized them and made them want something better.
The lesson is that Greek systems don’t have to add to the problems campuses face around drug and alcohol misuse. They can transform and become part of the solution if we teach them the skills and habits that foster wellbeing as well as how to recognize when others are at risk.
“Young people take part in Greek life because they are seeking friendship and support,” concludes Dr. Downs. “What better way to encourage those bonds than by providing the insights they need to take care of their fellow students? When they are educated and equipped with a plan, they can transform the love and care they have for their friends into action and save lives.”
About Adam Downs:
Adam B. Downs, PhD, LMFT, is the founder of What Good Looks Like, LLC (WGLL). Before starting WGLL, he was the chief clinical officer for Bradford Health Services. Before joining the team at Bradford, he was an associate professor at the University of Alabama’s School of Medicine–Tuscaloosa Campus in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine and was in student health administration as director of substance abuse services at the University of Alabama (UA).
About David Magee:
David Magee is the best-selling author of Things Have Changed: What Every Parent (and Educator) Should Know About the Student Mental Health and Substance Misuse Crisis and Dear William: A Father’s Memoir of Addiction, Recovery, Love, and Loss—a Publisher’s Weeklybestseller, named a Best Book of the South, and featured on CBS Mornings—and other nonfiction books. A changemaker in student and family mental health and substance misuse, he’s the creator and director of operations of the William Magee Institute for Student Wellbeing at the University of Mississippi and a frequent K–12 and university educational and motivational speaker, helping students and parents find and keep their joy. He hosts The Mayo Lab Podcast with David Magee, available at https://themayolab.com and on Apple and Spotify podcast platforms, a one-of-its-kind program for parents aimed at helping students and families find lasting wellbeing. He’s also a national recovery advisor for the Integrative Life Network. Learn more at www.daviddmagee.com.
Source: DeHart & Co.