SALT LAKE CITY — Right after the credits rolled on a short anti-drug movie, two dozen parents filed quietly on stage Friday at the 2018 Utah Solutions Summit. Once lined up, each held up a photo of one of their children.
The child who died of an opioid overdose.
That's the moment that will stick with Nataly Soto, a 17-year-old from Taylorsville High who hasn't lost anyone to addiction, but who said she's like all teens and has seen the pressure to try drugs — often prescriptions intended for someone else.
Those parents, who can no longer hug their kids, "that's when it hit home for me, broke my heart," said Soto. She quietly mimics the sales pitch she's heard from co-workers and friends. "You've never lived till you've tried it once." Friends "only tell the positives. They don't talk about what can go wrong."
Her pal, Nzhoni Guthrie, also 17, knows exactly what can go wrong. She's seen addictions within her own family and said she has no urge to experiment. "I'm too scared I might have the gene," she shuddered as Soto gave her a quick hug. "Seeing all those parents made me emotional."
Emotions were high as close to 5,000 students from around the state experienced a program that moved swiftly from pep rally to motivational speaker to film clips, peppered with real-life anecdotes of addiction's cost. It was told by those who paid those costs, including Court McGee, Ultimate Fighting Championship winner; Alema Harrington, former BYU football player and host of "Jazz Game Night;" Amber Baum, whose daughter McKenzie died with a needle in her arm despite efforts at recovery; and songwriter/musician Matt Butler, who's been sober five years, among others.
That opioid addiction is real was quickly clear when Jim Wahlberg asked those who have lost a family member or friend to addiction to stand. Like that, roughly half of those in the arena were on their feet.
Utah's not the state with the highest opioid addiction rate. But it has an opioid problem. The Utah Department of Health's most recent Utah Adolescent Health report, released this week, finds in 2017, 2.7 percent of students in grades 8, 10 and 12 had used a prescription drug that was not prescribed to them within the past 30 days, with no real difference by gender or grade.
The students may have been standing for some of the people in Utah's opioid death count: 360 Utahns died of opioid-related overdoses in 2017. Of those, 237 involved prescription opioids and 159 involved heroin. The numbers don't add up, because some were using both when they died.
Still, that's a nearly 20 percent decrease in opioid-related deaths compared to 2016. And 2017 marked the first time in six years that heroin deaths dropped.
Reaching kids in a three-hour program requires a fast pace, peppered with the things they love, especially if you want them to hear something they'll hate: That choices they make can be dangerous, even deadly. So the program for the middle- and high-school students was, by design, not static. One minute, they were hearing a short lecture, then they were standing to catch prizes or cheer for their grade or sing along to Lexie Walker's "This Is Me."
At one point, Ben Kjar, who was Utah Valley University's first wrestling All-American and an Olympic athlete, battered a $20 bill, then asked who wanted it. He was making the point that although it had been through a lot — crumpled and stomped on and made somewhat unsavory — it was still $20. People don't lose their values because of what they've gone through.
"Gritty and not so pretty" is how Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes introduced the program, calling on the students to celebrate life and lift each other up. Finding connections and developing a passion for life were recurrent themes, as was eliminating the shame and embarrassment and judgment that can prevent people from getting the help they need.
"We want you to run, instead of crawl … choose life, instead of dying," said Drug Enforcement Agency District Agent in Charge Brian Besser.
Students at Salem Hills High School have started doing different things to meet a group goal to thrive: They list three things they're grateful for each day, as well as one positive experience. They exercise, they meditate and they strive to do a "daily conscientious act of kindness." Those things make a big difference, said Principal Bart Peery. Anyone can do them. And they don't cost a penny.
Afterwards, students like Saydi Anderson and Macee Blackham of Juab High School said they'd remember the film "If Only." It was created by the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation for just this type of gathering of adolescents. Walhberg's brother Jim co-wrote it, drawing partly from his own experiences as an addict who left school before eighth grade and ended up a ward of the state. "I suffered a lot and my family suffered a lot," he said, before he found the "gift of recovery" in a Massachusetts prison.
"It makes me want to avoid drugs," Anderson said.
The film is the story of a teen who gets dragged to a party and finds he likes the drugs, including medication a friend takes for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD, and his own mom's painkillers. He quickly ends up in a treatment program; one of his friends dies while he's there. The films ends with photos of real people who died of drug overdoses.
Leo Valeriano, 13, from Red Hills Middle School in Richfield, said he had no idea how dangerous opioids are or how easily one can become addicted.1 comment on this story
That's the point. Addiction doesn't care who you are, Harrington said, telling his young audience that it will never say, "Oh, you go to church on Sunday" … or "You've got a 4.0 (GPA). I won't bother you." And not once when he was a successful athlete and student did he picture himself one day buying heroin at Pioneer Park or driving to a dope house with his kid in a car seat behind him.
Don't fall for it, he tells the teens.
But for those who already have, he wants it known that it's possible to come back. Until, that is, you're physically just a picture clutched in your parents' hands.
The summit, created by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, in 2014, tackles different topics each year. This year it was also hosted by Reyes and DEA 360.