Wellness (and the UI) Wins with Fresh Check Day

The University of Iowa’s Fresh Check Day — an event focused on campus mental health — won national recognition this year for being among the nation’s best. Rising to the top out of 145 other universities, the UI’s event won the 2018 Outstanding Fresh Check Day Campus award. This month, University Counseling Service director Barry Schreier flew to Connecticut to accept the prize on the UI’s behalf. Having played a key role in planning Iowa’s Fresh Check Day, I sat down with Schreier to learn more about the program and what made the UI’s event award winning.

What are Fresh Check Days and how did the University of Iowa become involved with this program?

So this comes out of the Jordan Porco foundation in Connecticut. I used to be the director of the counseling center at UConn and so encountered those folks when I was in that role. One of the initiatives that they run out of their foundation is Fresh Check Day. Fresh Check Day is a campus-wide mental health fair. We’ve never had a fair or initiative on campus that’s mental health-focused like this. It’s wellness oriented, because often when counseling centers do things on campus, they’re doing it around things like depression and anxiety and all the things that are wrong. And this really takes the perspective of wellness. That we all have mental health, and it’s really about how best to maintain your mental health rather than what’s wrong with you. So it’s really trying to get as many campus and community participants involved so that we’re taking a village approach to campus mental health.

What do you think Iowa did to make its Fresh Check Day so award-winning?

Ours is much larger than most, we’re doing it on a larger scale than most campuses are. We just did a really bang-up job getting the word out and marketing, so I think that made a difference. Our village approach I think really appealed to them, this ‘all hands on deck’ approach to campus mental health we took with it.

And for those who couldn’t make it, can you describe what all the UI’s Fresh Check Day entailed?

Every organization that’s involved has a booth. And they are to put together an activity focused around mental health. And as folks make their way around the fair, they participate in the booths’ activity. We had shared messaging on three things: campus resources, suicide prevention, and mindfulness. So every table you went to there was a common language we were using. Because we want to brand an approach to mental health on our campus, rather than everybody’s doing their own thing.

So when a student comes to Fresh Check Day, they get a card and they have to check in. Then they go around and get their card stamped a certain number of times. Then you can come out, turn your card in and there are prizes. The foundation sends us lots of swag and each participating organization also contributes a door prize. It was an official offering of homecoming and so we had parents and families walking through this year which was really great. And then our numbers just kind of went up. It helps us institutionalize it which is important.

What impact do you think receiving this honor will have for the University of Iowa and the University Counseling Service?

It’s all for what the university is doing around campus mental health. I think it’s a recognition that says, what Iowa’s doing and the way that Iowa’s doing it rises to a national standard. And that they are doing proactive, positive things to support students to have wellness and mental health. And it’s not about the UCS, it’s really the university’s commitment to mental health.

Can you touch on what goals the University has for future Fresh Check Days? How do you foresee the UI improving them in the future?

I think it will continue to attract awareness and so people will want to be part of it. Each year we have two or three more organizations join so it just keeps growing in its scale. We usually have a lot of late requests and so I’m usually turning two, three groups down. I think it will just continue to grow which is ideal. And then again, as it gets institutionalized, I think it can have a lot of things that can grow around it. There are some students I’ve been talking with and they want to do a mental health week the week before Fresh Check Day. So a whole week focused on campus mental health, and have that be a kick off to Fresh Check Day.

What kinds of organizations are typically involved in this?

Oh gosh, you name it. You know it’s everything from cultural identity organizations, to sorority and fraternities, student orgs, student veterans. We have community groups, the campus ministers are involved, the crisis center — which is now called CommUnity — is involved. We have some departmental organizations involved, like the LGBTQ advocates and the college of public health did a booth. So it just is a really nice broad cross-section.

Anything else?

So the other thing that Fresh Check Day does well is they survey every student that walks out the door. So we have a ton of outcome data. And what we know at least from the students completing the survey is that they walk out with [a sense of], ‘mission accomplished: I am much more aware of resources on campus than I was. I have gained a better understanding of risks and protective factors around suicide prevention. I picked up skills and at least a larger awareness of my role in suicide prevention on this campus.’ And so we have a lot of data to back up now that it’s not just fun, but it’s fun and it’s accomplishing the mission that it sets out to do.

Over 700 students and 23 organizations were involved in the University of Iowa’s Fresh Check Day. Among the many reasons for winning the 2018 Outstanding Fresh Check Day award, the Jordan Porco Foundation praised the UI for its “dedication to building sustainability, utilization of the student voice, and commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion."