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Inside Utah's struggle with drug abuse

(CNN)


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SALT LAKE CITY (CNN) — I met Shannon last year when she had just arrived in Los Angeles from her hometown of Salt Lake City with her 10-month-old baby. I was surprised to learn why she left the predominantly Mormon state known for its clean, healthy lifestyle to move to a city known for life's excesses.

The young mother said she was trying to escape from what she called "an epidemic." She said that Utah "was drowning in prescription pill addiction." Shannon divulged that she had actually been abusing heroin for some time, but — as with most people with addiction problems in Utah — it all started with pills.

Out of all 50 states, Utah ranks eighth in the number of prescription drugs overdose deaths, according to Susannah Burt with the state's Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health. And, despite a dip in 2008, the number of pill-related deaths in Utah over the past decade has increased by 400 percent, according to Burt.

I have always thought Utah had low levels of addiction because of the influence of its large Mormon population — more than 60 percent of those living there are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I've even known Mormons there who don't drink coffee in deference to their religion's "Word of Wisdom," a health law that strongly discourages people from consuming things that are harmful to their bodies.

You'd have to be hiding under a rock to not know how highly addictive prescription pills can be. And people in Utah, who have statistically speaking been successful at maintaining healthier lives, are no less vulnerable. In fact, because medications are prescribed by a physician, the assumption often is that they're OK.

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Many people who've been able to maintain diligence in upholding the LDS Word of Wisdom have fallen victim to pill addiction because of the gray area that doctor-prescribed pills inhabit.

While the LDS Church hierarchy certainly isn't proud of the exploding numbers, it didn't hide from the issue, giving us access to talk to those dealing with the struggles of addiction.

Earlier this year, we spent 12 days in Utah with Church leaders and people in recovery as well as people deep in the throes of addiction. I met people who wore their hearts on their sleeves who shared some of their most painful moments.

They allowed me into their worlds because they acknowledge pill addiction is a huge problem within their community and they know they need help.

The people I spent time with are incredibly brave — particularly Shannon who I'm happy to report has been clean for quite awhile now. I will always be grateful for their courage in sharing their stories.

The-CNN-Wire ™ & © 2014 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

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Lisa Ling

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