“Fresh Check Day” Founder Speaks at ECSU Luncheon

At first glance, it looks like so many other events on a college campus. Inflatable obstacle courses, T-shirt tie-dying stations and a student-led yoga class pepper the lawn. Students stroll by booths representing different campus groups, collecting Frisbees, sunglasses and other giveaways. Others line up by a row of local food trucks as a student acapella group performs nearby.

What differentiates this event from so many other college fairs and festivals is the important message it hopes to deliver to students – that mental health matters and you’re never alone.

Delivering that message has become a personal calling for Marisa Giarnella-Porco, who spoke at Natchaug Hospital’s ECSU Foundation Luncheon on Wednesday, March 14. Her son, Jordan, was just a month into the second semester of his freshman year at St. Michael’s College in Vermont when he took his own life.

“In speaking with Jordan’s friends, we know he was exhibiting some behavior changes,” Giarnella-Porco said. “At home, before he left for the semester, he was struggling with decisions like whether he wanted to take a gap year and what his major would be.”

Jordan didn’t show some of the tell-tale symptoms of severe depression or mental illness, like withdrawal from friends or activities, and as a career social worker, Giarnella-Porco never shied away from discussing mental health or suicide in her home.

“There were some definite changes going on, but he wasn’t formally diagnosed with any mental illness and was masking his symptoms by going to school and about his routine,” Giarnella-Porco. “[After his death,] a lot of people felt that if it happened to Jordan, it could happen to anyone.”

In the wake of Jordan’s death, Giarnella-Porco channeled her grief into helping address the issue of suicide in young adults, which ranks as the second leading cause of death for the age group. With the help of family and friends, she began that journey by researching the landscape of college mental health education and awareness.

“Our initial finding was that there were some really great resources and programs out there, but we didn’t know how they were getting to the kids,” Giarnella-Porco said.

Inspired by her son’s legacy, Giarnella-Porco co-founded the Jordan Porco Foundation which debuted its signature Fresh Check Day in 2012 at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic.

Fresh Check Days raise awareness and education about mental health and suicide on college campuses, while also offering students an opportunity to connect with organizations and resources. The event is packaged in a way that appeals to the college lifestyle, with free food and giveaways, live music and interactive displays and activities.

“Jordan never would have gone to a mental health event on campus, but if you made it fun with a festival-like atmosphere, you might engage somebody like Jordan to come and have conversations with people on campus and create an avenue for education and awareness,” Giarnella-Porco said.

Each Fresh Check Day takes about a semester to plan, and the organizers rely heavily on support from student groups and organizations.

“We involve all disciplines across campus, so it’s not just on the back of the counseling center,” Giarnella-Porco said. “It’s designed to bring the message to the students wherever they’re at, whether they are concerned about a friend or themselves, or they need the opportunity to see where on campus they can fit in or connect.”

Since the Jordan Porco Foundation held its first Fresh Check Day, the event has spread to college campuses across the country. In 2017 alone, there were 128 Fresh Check events in 34 states that were attended by more than 30,000 students.

Many schools, including local colleges like Eastern Connecticut and the University of Connecticut, have made Fresh Check Days an annual occurrence, and the response from students has been powerful.

“We’ve had students say, ‘I needed this. It’s finals time and I’m stressed out,’” Giarnella-Porco said. “One school shared that a student ripped up their suicide note after attending the event.”

With the success of Fresh Check Days, the Jordan Porco Foundation established two other programs – “Nine Out of Ten,” an ambassador program which empowers students on campus to find their voice and spread suicide prevention messaging in creative ways, and “4 What’s Next,” which offers high school juniors and seniors the chance to interactively discuss transitioning out of high school into work, the military or college.

“Everything we do is really peer-centered, because kids really know how to communicate with each other,” Giarnella Porco said. “When it’s done safely and with some guidance, it’s a really effective way to promote this message… that suicide prevention is everyone’s responsibility.”