Ardsley Mom Works to Raise Awareness about Co-Occurring Disorders

Mother who Lost Son Spoke to SWBOCES Students about Mental Illness and Substance-Abuse Disorders

Stephanie Marquesano’s son, Harris, was a good kid with “a twinkle in his eye and a smile that would light up the room.” But he struggled with anxiety from a very young age and was diagnosed with ADHD in eighth grade.

He smoked marijuana for the first time that year and his behavior became out of control, but everything improved when he switched mental-health providers the following year and went on medication for ADHD. However, the stress and pressure that 11th grade brought with it, including SATs and college planning, increased his anxiety.

“He went to a party and took pills for the first time. That is pretty much where we can say ‘Game over,’” his mother recently told students at Southern Westchester BOCES’ Rye Lake Campus.

Harris went to multiple inpatient and outpatient drug rehabilitation programs, but they didn’t treat his underlying mental-health issues. He was 19 when he died of a drug overdose in 2013.

Since then, the Ardsley mom has campaigned to raise awareness of co-occurring disorders – substance-use and mental-health disorders. She tells her family’s story not to scare people or make them feel sorry for her, but to effect change in how CODs are treated. Most of all, she seeks to educate young people about what has become a pervasive problem in their generation, and to inspire them to take action.

“I could spend my time talking to parents and community leaders, and that’s all well and good,” said Ms. Marquesano, who created the Harris Project in her son’s name. “But my mission is to talk to young people about this so that this can be your movement and you can keep yourselves, your friends, your family members from dying.”

The nonprofit partnered with Student Assistance Services in Westchester to pilot a school campaign called CODA, which stands for Co-Occurring Disorders Awareness. About 15 schools in the region have started CODA clubs, including chapters in New Rochelle, Hendrick Hudson, John Jay High School and Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES Fox Meadow High School. The Harris Project has worked with Southern Westchester BOCES and Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in introducing CODA to schools.

Ms. Marquesano, who also gave the presentation to SWBOCES students at Irvington High School, said it is important that students know how to get involved. “Young people are making a commitment because they want to understand this better and they want it to not just be a club of kids who are at risk who cling together. They want everybody to get the message,” she said.

CODs are “shrouded in shame and secrecy,” Ms. Marquesano said. If children are using substances, families more than likely will tell people that they are good kids who just started hanging out with the wrong people. If you start talking about mental health, parents may think the community is judging them and wondering who in the family is crazy.

“It won’t be until we start changing that conversation that change is going to happen and it’s going to start with you,” she said. “Talking about this ends the cycle of being ashamed and denying the problem. Everybody’s got something.”

Leslie, a Rye Lake Middle School eighth-grader, said she thinks organizing a CODA club at Rye Lake would be helpful for students. “A lot of kids here are going through their own stuff,” she said.

Angelina, a sophomore at Rye Lake High School, said she can relate to what Ms. Marquesano talked about. “I went down the same kind of down-the-hill thing as her son,” she said.

More than nine million Americans meet the clinical diagnosis for co-occurring disorders, and 70 percent of people who misuse substances have a co-occurring mental-health challenge or disorder, according to Ms. Marquesano. Twenty-two percent of youth between 13 and 18 have a diagnosable mental addictive disorder with severe impact in any given year.

Few drug-rehabilitation programs in the country also treat CODs, she said. Those that do provide this kind of care develop a treatment plan depending on what their patients’ struggles are. “Kids are going to rehab four, five, six times and they’re like, ‘Why aren’t they getting it right?’ Because this isn’t happening,” she said of the programs that treat both drug-abuse and mental-health disorders.

Responding to a question during her presentation, Ms. Marquesano said she finds that some students don’t want to take medication they are prescribed, but they “have no problem dabbling in substances.

“It’s kind of hypocritical to play around with stuff where you don’t know what’s going to happen versus doing something that may give you a better quality of life,” she said, adding that it’s important to build a relationship with professionals and trust that the people around you have your best interests at heart.

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CODA – Co-Occurring Disorders Awareness – Campaign Goals:

  • Talk about the relationship between mental health/wellness and substance misuse
  • Educate school communities about co-occurring disorders through presentations, guest speakers and panels
  • Offer youth mental health first-aid training
  • Partner with other organizations and clubs
  • Advocate for change through meetings with legislators
  • Participate in CODA leadership summits