Drug Use & Co-Occurring Disorders: How Can Social Media Help?


Each year, The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) works to shatter myths teens have about drugs and substance abuse. Through their National Drug Facts Week, they provide a chat between students and scientists, contests, and events. This year, I’m using NIDA’s week to discuss and raise awareness of co-occurring disorders (COD) in remembrance of a genuine friend of mine. While NIDA focuses mostly on teen drug use and abuse, a large part of the struggle with drugs for many teenage Americans begins with mental health.

Common drug abuse myths include:

  • If it’s a prescription or legal, it’s safe and okay to use.
  • Addicts intentionally choose to keep using drugs.
  • Once you detox, you’ll stay clean for the rest of your life.
  • Standard treatment plans can work for anyone.

We’re aware of the addictive qualities of many drugs. We acknowledge the vast array of mental health illnesses faced by substance abusers. Accepting these myths help to perpetuate the stigmatization and shaming of individuals struggling with mental health issues and/or substance abuse rather than promoting support and treatment.


Co-Occurring Disorders

Co-occurring disorders (COD) refers to the combination of one or more mental health issues and substance abuse. 9.2 million Americans currently meet the criteria for a COD diagnosis (SAMHSA, 2012); that’s about one million more people than the population of New York City. However, there’s limited use and knowledge of the term “co-occurring disorders.” ABC News Anchor Elizabeth Vargas openly discussed how anxiety and panic attacks drove her to self-medication. New York Mayor’s daughter Chiara De Blassio recently came out about her anxiety and referenced substance abuse as her coping mechanism.  In both cases, COD was not mentioned. Searches for COD in Google come up with pages titled Call of Duty, cod the fish, and the College of DuPage’s meteorology program. I learned of the term this past fall when Harris, a close friend accidentally overdosed after years of attempted mental health treatment, a year and a half of attempted substance abuse treatment, and periods of detox.

Harris’ Story

Harris experienced anxiety from early childhood on and was then also diagnosed with ADHD. His family worked with psychologists and psychiatrists on his anxiety and ADHD. Like many who experience mental health issues, Harris later turned to self-medication, which led to his substance abuse. Attempting recovery, Harris attended two outpatient centers, one short-term mental health in-patient center, and four primary substance abuse in-patient centers all within the span of a year and a half.

During that time, Harris and his family looked online for possible next steps after he left an in-patient unit. They read blogs and online articles for more information and recognized the link between mental health and substance abuse. They found that recovery depends on personalized treatment plans compatible with each individual’s COD diagnosis. However, Harris and his family also discovered that while the link was clear, some treatment facilities claiming to offer COD compatible treatment plans did not actually provide them. From staying clean to group therapy, removal of mental health prescriptions to limited interaction with psychiatrists and psychologists, rehab facilities failed to provide comprehensive plans that addressed both Harris’s mental health and substance abuse.

the harris project

After Harris’s death, his family has continued using social media resources. They have launched “the harris project” (thp) : a non profit grass roots organization “committed to advancing education, treatment, support and research opportunities to improve the lives of young adults diagnosed with co-occurring disorders”.

Social Media Apps

the harris project remains active on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram by updating followers on personal progress alongside research results and relevant pop culture events. Many of Harris’s friends have engaged with (thp) through social media to spread the word and get mobilize youth supporters. A policy report done by the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law shows that “eighty percent of people with multiple mental health and substance abuse disorders report onset before age 20.”

What Next?

We are the social media generation. We have the power to amplify our voices and garner support around causes we care about, including improving mental health care. To learn more about what you can do around co-occurring disorders, connect with the harris project today.

At this year’s YTH Live conference in April, the following organizations will present on drug and substance-use related topics:

  • Drugcocktails.ca – an online resource for facts on mixing prescription medications and substances of abuse.
  • South Side Stories – digital first person narratives that capture life experiences of Chicago’s South Side, including drug use.


Rebecca Lehner youth leaderRebecca Lehner (@r_lehner) is a member of YTH’s Youth Advisory Board.

She attends American University in Washington, D.C. studying anthropology, and gender and sex studies. She hopes to broaden dialogues on sexuality and identity within school health curriculums in order to educate and empower youth, reduce discrimination, and increase acceptance and understanding. +Learn more about Rebecca

Creative Commons photos by Alden Chadwick and Jason Howie.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Results from the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Mental Health Findings, NSDUH Series H-42, HHS Publication No. (SMA) 11-4667. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2012

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