The Harris Project founder speaks to SU students about co-occurring disorders

Kiran Ramsey | Digital Design Editor

Stephanie Marquesano spoke at Syracuse University on Sunday about co-occurring disorders, kicking off Mental Health Awareness Week.

Syracuse University students, escaping a late Sunday evening downpour, watched slides of a young man laughing and running flash across a screen — a young man that would eventually die of an overdose in October 2013.

A nonprofit group gave a presentation on co-occurring disorders, kicking off SU’s inaugural Mental Health Awareness Week on Sunday in the Hall of Languages at 7 p.m.

Stephanie Marquesano, the founder of The Harris Project organization, spoke before a crowd of roughly 40 SU students and regional residents, detailing what co-occurring disorders are and how the disorder classification does not receive enough attention from policymakers and rehabilitation programs.

“We really are the only ones talking about it,” Marquesano said.

A co-occurring disorder is a diagnosis of one or more mental health conditions and substance misuses or abuses, Marquesano said near the beginning of her roughly hour-long presentation.

Marquesano said The Harris Project was formed after her son Harris’s overdose death in 2013. Harris had been diagnosed with co-occurring disorders.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, approximately 7.9 million adults had co-occurring disorders in 2014 — the latest data that was available on the disorder classification.

“So we’re really talking about a true and real epidemic,” Marquesano said. “And, that’s what’s so puzzling to me. See in the beginning, I didn’t realize that I really and truly was the only person who founded an organization about co-occurring disorders.”

The Harris Project’s goal is to spread education and awareness on what co-occurring disorders are, but also to advocate lawmakers to merge state mental health and substance abuse agencies and resources, Marquesano said.

Marquesano used New York State’s Office of Mental Health and Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services as examples of agencies the Harris Project would like to see merged to streamline resources.

“Is treating co-occurring disorders complicated? Yes. It’s complicated,” Marquesano. “But, it’s not so complicated that there isn’t a whole plan written out.”

Funding is disproportionate between state mental health and substance abuse agencies, Marquesano said, with a tendency for more funding to be given to substance abuse agencies. By merging agencies, Marquesano said treatment for co-occurring disorders would improve dramatically.

In an interview following the event, Marquesano said she thinks there is an opportunity for a merge of the NYS OMH and OASAS, after discussions between her organization and OASAS.

Marquesano added that The Harris Project focuses on raising education and awareness on the disorder classification with high school and college students.

Attendees of the presentation were visibly emotional, some crying after reading poems written by Harris that were displayed in PowerPoint slides.

Marquesano’s daughter, Jensyn, attended the event with several friends and fellow sorority members from Alpha Xi Delta. Jensyn is an SU junior studying social work in the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics.

“I actually learned and took away a lot more than I expected,” said Amber Ragunas, an SU sophomore in Alpha Xi Delta majoring in broadcast and digital journalism, following the event. “Now that I know the name, I can actually connect (co-occurring disorders) to people in my family, some friends that I have. Now I actually want to get involved.”

Marquesano encouraged students that attended the presentation to continue raising awareness about the disorder classification at SU. Many students signed up to receive more information on The Harris Project following the event, also taking free organization pins and rubber bracelets distributed by Marquesano.

“I think SU and colleges across the country need to be talking more about mental health in general,” said Kristelle Aisaka, SU’s new health promotion specialist at the Office of Health Promotion. “People like Stephanie are doing really great work, and there are a lot of people on campus that are doing a lot of really great work, and I think to bring all of these voices together is really impactful and effective.”


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