Hidden harms of hazing

The word "hazing" often brings to mind examples of physical abuse and/or excessive drinking – egregious acts of hazing that make the national news. Many students are familiar with the legal aspects of hazing and know to avoid activities that involve physical abuse. But what about the use of secrecy, servitude, blindfolding or sensory deprivation? Students may falsely believe these acts only cause temporary discomfort and aren’t harmful. However, hazing actually includes a broad spectrum of actions and behaviors that "may hurt in more ways than a paddle ever could."1 Every day, hundreds of thousands of people continue to struggle with the “hidden” harms of hazing – the mental and emotional scars that result from being hazed and even from hazing others.

Joining a new organization can cause stress for many people who may wonder, "Will people accept me? Can I be my true self?" When first meeting new people, we rarely reveal our flaws, shortcomings and sources of distress. Even if you have known a person for some time, there are likely things they don’t know about you.

These common concerns about belonging are amplified when someone is also dealing with a mental disorder. Recent data on college student mental health indicates many students are struggling.2

  • 40% report a diagnosis of a mental disorder at some point in their lives.
  • 41% report symptoms of depression (over half of which are "severe" depression).
  • 34% report symptoms of anxiety disorder.
  • 12% report symptoms of an eating disorder.

Mental disorders often develop through a combination of biological/genetic factors (which we have no control over) and physical and social environments (which we can partially control). They can also result from a single traumatic event at any point in our lives (such as hazing). Factors associated with poor mental health include sleep deprivation, hazardous physical conditions, exposure to extreme weather conditions, physical restriction, abuse (physical, sexual, or emotional), toxic relationships and lack of safety.3 These behaviors are all among the most common hazing activities.

Hazers know what will happen, and intentionally withhold information to produce anxiety in the new members. 47% of college students report hazing experiences while in high school and, as a result, may be more likely to experience psychological harm when hazed again.4

When planning new member programs, consider the “hidden” psychological harm that activities might create. Are your group’s events designed to bring people together or break them down? Is the goal to help foster integrity and self-worth or show who’s in charge? Hazing can be the trigger that pushes someone past their breaking point regardless of whether they have an underlying mental disorder. You don’t know what might break someone.



  1. Apgar, T. T. & Szabo, R. (2008). What we don’t know can hurt us most: The hidden harms of hazing. Rev. Paper. The National Hazing Prevention Week Resource Guide.
  2. The Healthy Minds Study, 2021 Winter/Spring Data Report. Accessed 6 May 2022.
  3. National Counselling Society. How your environment affects your mental health. Accessed 6 May 2022.
  4. Allan, E.J. and Madden, M. (2008) Hazing in View: College Students at Risk.