The mental health toll of sorority rush: 'It takes a lot to break me, but I was definitely broken'

young women participating in sorority rush
(AP; illustrated for Yahoo News)

Morgan Cadenhead didn't know anything about sorority life when she made plans to attend the University of Alabama. The 18-year-old from Crestview, Fla. tells Yahoo Life that no women in her family had been affiliated with Greek life before. When sorority recruitment made it onto her social media feeds though, she started to prepare to join during her freshman year.

These videos showed sorority girls wearing neon outfits and 100-watt smiles while doing coordinated dances, as potential new members (PNMs) looking to bid their way into the organizations shared their own impressive outfit of the day videos with hopeful expressions on their faces. They gave Cadenhead the impression that sorority rush was just a "fun process" that she felt inspired to take part in. Yet just a few days into experiencing rush herself, she revealed that she felt she had "been sold a pipe dream" by its representation on social media.

In reality, long days of running around to different houses, meeting with existing members of various sororities during multiple organized events and ranking these interactions in an effort to ultimately be paired with and invited to join a particular house through a process of mutual selection didn't leave Cadenhead feeling the way she thought she would.

"It was so hot, so sweaty, miserable," she shared in a video recapping day three of rush. "Anybody who smiles at these videos after they're done rushing is crazy." Further, she tells Yahoo Life about her experience, "It takes a lot to break me, but I was definitely broken."

She's not alone.

The toll of sorority recruitment

"Recruitment week is kind of like childbirth," Stacia Damron, founder of the sorority rush coaching advisory company Hiking in Heels tells Yahoo Life. "No one has fun during the process, but it is worth it at the end."

That's how she felt when she went through it as a student at the University of Texas at Austin. She recalls the discomfort of walking around campus wearing heels and a dress in 110-degree weather as she remained focus on making a good impression during "50 one-on-one interviews" with sorority members. "Trying to smile and stay positive and focus on the exciting parts versus the fact that you know, there's sweat going down your back and your feet are hurting" wasn't easy, she says.

"The pit in my stomach and tears were most of what I can remember," Gabrielle Gruszynski wrote of her recruitment experience for The Red & Black, a student-run newspaper for the University of Georgia.

"The mental and emotional exhaustion is an entirely different pain," noted Jasmine Knox, a staff writer for the student-run newspaper of Florida Southern College The Southern in 2015.

It's not a perspective captured in pop culture references depicting sorority life like The House Bunny, Legally Blonde or even the Max's 2023 Bama Rush documentary. However, research proves its legitimacy.

"Simply participating in recruitment, regardless of the outcome, led to significant increases in anxiety," a 2016 study, which looked at young women who were both "successful" and "unsuccessful" — meaning they got into a sorority, or they didn't — in the process, revealed. "There was also a significant rejection penalty for unsuccessful participants who experienced an increase in negative, dysphoric affect over the course of recruitment. ... However, most of the results demonstrate that recruitment is a difficult process for all participants, regardless of outcome."

Cadenhead notes that it's not just stress from recruitment that these students are dealing with.

"These girls are 18, 17 years old, like fresh adults with a lot of emotions going on. They've just left home, they moved thousands of miles away," she says. "It’s a lot for a lot of the girls."

Elizabeth Marks, associate therapist at Manhattan Wellness, tells Yahoo Life that this all goes into making the goal of good first impressions that much more distressing.

"Our most confident and authentic self generally comes from familiar situations that breed comfort, not situations that are essentially based on judgement. Without space and time between recruitment and returning to school while trying to make new friends, it's likely to feel burnt out while also potentially fueling a sense of self doubt," she says. "When also struggling with a lack of rest it can allow us to become over-stimulated more easily and increase emotional sensitivity."

Why realistic portrayals are important

One week into the recruitment process, a tearful Cadenhead announced on TikTok that she did not receive an invitation back to any of her desired houses. She tells Yahoo Life that she suspects her videos sharing her unfiltered experience with rush contributed to her not getting a bid. However, she maintains that her thoughts were authentic, and not meant to reflect negative feelings about sorority culture.

"I don't think it's ever been showcased like that before. It’s usually just sunshine and rainbows, and when girls shut the camera off, they cry. But I was more than willing to cry on camera," she says. "I’m not going to pretend like I didn't want to be in the house. I wanted to be in a sorority really bad, but I didn't get in and that's OK."

National Panhellenic Conference, the umbrella organization for sororities across the country, stands by the recruitment process in a statement provided to Yahoo Life, noting that it is "a fun and important element of the sorority experience — it brings young women together to learn about and experience the benefits of sorority life for the first time. The National Panhellenic Conference (NPC) has clearly established policies to guide the recruitment process and ensure potential new members feel supported every step of the way."

Damron, whose business focuses on preparing PNMs for the emotional rollercoaster that is rush, believes that talking about the difficult parts of it shouldn't be viewed as a detriment to sorority culture. In fact, she sees it as an efficient way to get people better prepared and ultimately more enthusiastic about the process.

"Just having more perspectives out there is a good, positive thing to really let people know what Greek life is as a whole," she says. "They can see the positives, the negatives and make the best decision for them if that's something they want to be a part of."