When Stephanie Marquesano spoke in October about her son, Harris, who died three years ago from an accidental drug overdose, students at Fox Meadow High School were moved to act. They created a CODA Club, a group devoted to raising awareness of Co-Occurring Disorders in teens, at Fox Meadow and held the club’s first major event yesterday.
While the motivating event, Harris’ tragic death, was undoubtedly sad, the program at Fox Meadow was anything but. It featured original music and music videos, posters and presentations by students as well as talks by Marquesano and Fox Meadow health teacher Patricia Gallo – all aimed at removing the stigma from talking about mental health.
“Fox Meadow has taken on the challenge to change the way society views substance abuse and mental health,” Gallo said, adding that students are not ashamed to talk about disorders like asthma or diabetes but no one wants to discuss mental health challenges. “We want to make it OK to say ‘I am riddled with anxiety’ or ‘I am so depressed I don’t want to get out of bed.’”
During the presentations, club members opened up about mental health challenges of their own. “Be awesome,” Gallo told them. “Anybody can be cool but it takes time, it takes practice to be awesome.”
Afterward, students had the opportunity to choose from among several fun activities including yoga, bingo, playing music and watching a movie.
Marquesano said between 20 and 25 percent of high school students experience a mental health challenge each year yet most believe they are alone. “We want to empower young people with the knowledge to understand the relationship between mental health and substance abuse so we can change outcomes,” she said.
Marquesano said her son who was a soccer player at Ardsley High School wasn’t comfortable talking about his struggles with anxiety or ADHD. Instead, he turned to substances to self- medicate, eventually becoming addicted.
Marquesano devotes her time to raising awareness of co-occurring disorders, lobbying for changes in treatment programs and encouraging students and adults to become trained in mental health first aid. She said she was encouraged that change will come from the involvement of young people like the students at Fox Meadow.
“I am completely blown away by the amount of time, energy and creativity these kids put intom today,” she said. “It is their movement.”