SOMERS, N.Y. – The Somers Partners in Prevention hosted a community forum on Tuesday, April 25, at the Somers Middle School Library featuring guest speaker Stephanie Marquesano of the Harris Project. Marquesano, whose son died from drug use at 19 years old, offered a unique perspective on the horrors of drug dependency and abuse to an audience of many interested members of the community, including police officers, school administrators, teachers and parents.

Marquesano stressed the importance of co-occurring disorders (or CODs) as a major player in drug abuse. According to Marquesano’s organization, “COD is the combination of one or more mental health challenges and substance abuse. With approximately 9.2 million Americans meeting the criteria, the diagnosis of COD is one we all need to understand.” Her focus is to improve the rehabilitation system in the United States to better address these disorders, which, she said, are not commonly assessed but still have a substantial impact on a struggling individual.

Marquesano identified the core problem as being the lack of integrated and comprehensive services to address mental health issues along with substance abuse, rather than two separate entities, which they are often considered. She argued that if time and energy were to be put into treating the presence of both in the same patient, this more wholesome healing process would help much more than the current one.

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Accompanying Marquesano’s presentation were personal stories of her experience as the mother of the late Harris Marquesano, who, she said, was known as an exceptionally kind and intelligent student-athlete who was loved by his friends, family and acquaintances. She used Harris, who used self-medication to subdue his feelings, as an example of a promising young person whose combination of drug use and mental health issues produced a difficult situation for himself and his family. The Harris Project aims to use the devastation of his passing as a talking point to help combat a lack of awareness of CODs among parents and the community.

Following the presentation and story were questions fielded by both Marquesano and Katherine Cucchiarella, Partners in Prevention chairperson.

Present at the forum were members of the Youth to Youth Club from Somers High School. The club focuses on awareness and health education from a young adult perspective, and participates in other events alongside the Partners in Prevention community forum. Inspired by Harris’ message, many different high school- and college-age clubs and groups have formed (similar to Somers’ Youth to Youth Club) to help spread the message of substance abuse and treatment for mental health issues. Marquesano presents at schools, and has successfully sparked activity in Ardsley High School, Somers High School, and others.

The Partners in Prevention group is dedicated to promoting awareness of drug abuse and using education to create a safer community. Working with many other local organizations, it is present in many different areas of Somers life. The group meets monthly at 7 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday in the Somers Town House meeting room. Additional information on Marquesano’s story is available at theharrisproject.org.