In the midst of a week when high-profile suicides prompted sadness and grief in Connecticut, Florida and across the country, supporters of a nationally-known Connecticut-based organization actively working to prevent teen suicide gathered in Hartford, the organization’s hometown, for a previously planned fundraising event.
It began with a moment of silence for a teen survivor of the Parkland mass shooting, who had taken her own life that same day. Another classmate would soon take the same tragic action, followed just days later by the parent of a Sandy Hook school student killed in 2012.
Tinged with sorrow that never lifts, leaders and supporters of the Jordan Porco Foundation, named in memory and honor of a local teen who died by suicide in 2011, highlighted both the progress made and the statistics that remain cause for concern and action.
Suicide rates are on the rise, officials noted, increasing every year since 2000, and suicide accounts for 20% of all deaths among 15-24 year olds in the U.S.
“We need to continue combatting thee statistics by giving mental health a consistent platform,” said Marisa Giarnella-Porco, Co-Founder and CEO. “It is critical to start mental health conversations and keep them going. In doing this we are helping young adults understand they are not alone.”
Foundation leaders noted the start of a new national program aimed at high school students, joining a college initiative that began just seven years ago on a single campus – Eastern Connecticut State University – and now has taken root at more than 150 colleges and universities in 37 states, impacting more than 40,000 college students.
That program, Fresh Check Day, is an uplifting mental health fair that includes peer-run interactive booths, free food, music, and exciting prizes and giveaways. The goal, organizers explain succinctly: “You can save a life with this program.” The data highlights why - 82% of students who attend Fresh Check Day say they are more likely to ask for help, and 83% of students who attend Fresh Check Day say they are more prepared to help a friend in need. Nearly 9 in 10 say they are more aware of available resources after participating in the program.
Responding to greater awareness of the increasing stresses facing high school students, particularly on the brink of college, that reveal mental health concerns, the Foundation has developed a high school initiative entitled “4 What’s Next. Because change happens.” The program has been piloted in Connecticut schools and programs during the past year, and is now being rolled out nationally.
4 What’s Next is a student-driven primary prevention program to help high school students develop positive coping skills and enhance protective factors in preparation for life beyond high school.
The program’s primary goals are to:
Develop protective factors and social and emotional skills
Build openness, connectedness, and empathy
Empower students to create and communicate individual awareness, knowledge, and skills as a culmination of learning
Identify future challenges and have the knowledge and skills to approach them with confidence
According to the program description, over the course of 5 modules, students will understand what distress looks like for them and develop or strengthen an internal locus of control related to their mental health and emotional wellbeing. They will gain skills for psychological resiliency such as coping skills and help-seeking, and learn how to apply these skills to better manage conflict, time, and money as examples.
Pilots during the 2017-18 academic year were Manchester High School; Immaculate High School, Danbury; Capital Preparatory High School, Hartford; Institute of Living, Hartford; Jewish Family Services, West Hartford; Guilford Youth & Family Services; Enfield Public Schools; Boys & Girls Club of Bristol Family Center; and Wilton High School. The J.H. Rose High School in Greenville, NC also participated. Initial pilots were conducted the previous year at Manchester High School; Walnut Hill School for the Arts, Natick, MA; Windham High School; and East Catholic High School, Manchester.
The mission of the Jordan Porco Foundation is to prevent suicide, promote mental health, and create a message of hope for young adults. To accomplish this, the organization:
Helps challenge stigma by talking openly about mental health issues
Offers engaging and uplifting programming, emphasizing peer-to-peer messaging
Promotes help seeking behavior, self-care, and coping skills
Educates about the risk factors and warning signs of suicide and other related mental health concerns
Another Foundation initiative, Nine out of Ten, is based on the statistic that “one in ten college students contemplates suicide. That leaves nine, given the resources, to help the one.” The Foundation created the program and website to educate students about the warning signs of suicide, available resources, and action steps to take if a friend is thinking about suicide. “With this knowledge, students are empowered to be gatekeepers for their peers and get them help if they’re struggling with their mental health.”
At the Hartford event, the Jordan Porco Foundation honored a number of individuals for their dedication and leadership. Among them was Rhonda Spaziani, Instructor at Three Rivers Community College (TRCC). She received the Janice Fletcher Memorial Award, created in remembrance of a Fresh Check Day coordinator, the former Director of Counseling at Lasell College who died of cancer last July.
Spaziani has worked in the community college system for over 20 years in Admissions, Advising, Counseling, Student Life, and Instruction. TRCC hosted their first Fresh Check Day in 2014—when only ten total schools were participating—and have hosted Fresh Check Day every year since. Spaziani also directed the Garrett Lee Smith Suicide Prevention Grant, which led Three Rivers to be the first community college in the nation to receive the JedCampus Seal.
Also honored for their dedication and leadership were Connecticut resident Juliana Holcomb, now attending College of the Holy Cross, as Student Mental Health Advocate of the Year; and Sue Barez, an HR Recruiter at Yale University, and Liz Doll, a realtor for William Raveis in Glastonbury, as Foundation Champions of the Year. Michael Kuziak, Chief Operating Officer at LAZ Parking, received the Jordan’s Journey Pillar Award for his continuous support which has been “instrumental in our national expansion and programmatic successes.”