the harris project is committed to advancing prevention programming, and advocates for the implementation of integrated treatment opportunities to improve the lives of teens and young adults diagnosed with co-occurring disorders (COD). COD is the combination of one or more mental health challenges and substance misuse and/or addiction.
With a goal of transforming the national perception and management of COD, our perspective embraces two diagnostic areas (mental health and substance misuse/addiction), while promoting a comprehensive plan of action to:
Harris Blake Marquesano was a real person. He was a loving son, brother, grandson, nephew, cousin, and friend. When Harris died, at the age of 19, he was struggling with the impact of COD. His loss is felt throughout our family, his friends, our community, and by so many people who Harris touched in amazing ways.
Research suggests that approximately 70% of those misusing/addicted to substances have COD, and that more than 10.2 million Americans meet the criteria for a clinical diagnosis of COD. Based on our personal experience with Harris – who died of an accidental overdose having been discharged from a program and sober living environment about 36 hours before – the rehabilitation system failed to properly address his COD.
Harris had been diagnosed early on with an anxiety disorder, and later with ADHD. He had seen psychiatrists and psychologists throughout his life. When he began experimenting/self-medicating with marijuana leading to the misuse of prescription medication, he unknowingly began a war that would ultimately lead to his death. However, he and we did all we could to try and win. In the year and a half before he died, Harris attended: 2 outpatient, 1 short term mental health in-patient, and 4 primarily substance misuse/addiction in-patient programs, all promoting themselves as experts in COD. Unfortunately, that was not the case. It’s important to know that Harris attended each of these programs with the same hope for recovery as we had. After Harris was released from the first in-patient program, he saw a psychiatrist/psychologist team that were purportedly “experts” in COD. Sadly, they were not. Harris relapsed under their care almost immediately. They didn’t even have a recommendation for our next inpatient program.
We have a profound sense of guilt that somehow we failed Harris. We know that Harris also felt extremely guilty that he was hurting our family. This guilt is irrational. We are a family of good people, and we all tried so hard. COD is a disorder/disease, and we truly believe it is the system that failed us! We founded the harris project to change outcomes from prevention to treatment.
Regardless of what rehabilitation programs promised, our experience revealed a treatment model that was almost always the same: abstinence from drugs, group therapy, minimal face time with psychiatrists and psychologists, often a removal of medication designed to aid with mental health challenges or a failure to augment or change medications that weren’t working, and ultimately discharge from the program. Unfortunately, in our experience, some programs also relied almost exclusively on shame, blame, and breaking apart the family unit. At the harris project we identified the core problem as a lack of integrated and comprehensive services to address mental health challenges together with substance misuse/addiction.
After Harris’s death, we called many programs around the country to see if somehow we missed something. Initially promoting themselves as experts in COD, most of these programs, when pressed, admitted that their ability to address the mental health piece was extremely limited. The good news is that in the almost 5 years since Harris’s death we have worked diligently to make impact, and a transformation of the system of care is becoming a reality.
Because we are a nation in a mental health and substance misuse/addiction crisis. Because, in our experience with Harris, the recovery programs he attended boasted at best 12% success rates. And, those success rates include those without COD! Because the best opportunity to keep our youth from developing COD is quality prevention programming. Because we are afraid that those with COD will continue to fail in rehabilitation programs unless the treatment model become integrated and comprehensive addressing both sides of this at the same time.
That is the goal of the harris project: to be the voice of those with COD, and bring COD out of the shadows and into the light. We share Harris’s story with you because Harris would want us to. It won’t bring Harris back, but we have the opportunity to change the outlook and prognosis for millions!