CNN focuses on Mormons and drug abuse

Television : ‘This Is Life’ reports on prescription painkiller abuse, deaths in Utah

The Salt Lake Tribune/October 2, 2014

By Scott D. Pierce

CNN shines a spotlight on Utah, Mormons and prescription painkiller abuse on Sunday night — and the LDS Church helped.

The upcoming edition of the new documentary series "This Is Life with Lisa Ling," which premiered this past Sunday, opens with dark, ominous shots of the Salt Lake Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The host tells viewers, "More people are dying from pill overdoses in Utah than almost any other state in the U.S. and we’re here to find out why," then points directly at the large Mormon population.

But the report, titled "Unholy Addiction," does not bash the church.

"Whenever you put a show like this out, you get a little bit nervous about how people who subscribe to the faith will respond to it," Ling said in a phone interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. "But I really have to take my hat off to people in the church for giving us this kind of access and opening themselves up."

Including Kathy, who has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on rehab for herself and her daughter.

"There’s that pressure to be perfect," she said, "and since we don’t drink, there’s always the pills, which we don’t talk about."

Kathy’s daughter, Shannon, also opens up about her progression from pills to heroin to a DUI arrest and losing custody of her daughter.

"I felt worthless," she says. "I didn’t fit in the box of being, like, this housewife. Everybody else in church gets married and has five kids by the time they’re 30. Yeah, they’re not telling you to do that, but how do you feel when you go to church and you’re the only one who doesn’t?"

Ling isn’t shy about asking whether Utah’s pill problem is related to the LDS Church.

"There is a perception, I think, that Mormonism is a very strict religion and that there is this pressure to be perfect and live these sort of perfect lives," she said. "But what everybody told me is it’s not the religion that puts that pressure on people, it’s totally self-imposed."

"This Is Life" is long on personal stories and short on numbers. Ling tells viewers that more Utahns died of prescription medication overdoses in 2013 than died in auto accidents, but there are no charts or graphs.

"At the end of the day, people don’t remember statistics," Ling said. "Statistics and numbers go in one ear and out the other. People remember heartfelt stories."

And "Unholy Addiction" is filled with heartfelt stories. In addition to Kathy and Shannon, we meet a young woman in throes of heroin addiction that began with a pill problem. We meet an LDS bishop who lost a sibling to alcoholism. We meet a father who lost his son to an overdose.

To Ling’s surprise, she was allowed to attend and film a 12-step program meeting sponsored by the LDS Church and filled with Mormon addicts.

"When the LDS Church said that we could have access, I honestly thought that it would be a pretty propaganda-thick kind of meeting," Ling said. "But people really shared such deep and dark things. You wouldn’t go on national television and make that stuff up.

"I have to tell you, I was so incredibly moved and appreciative of these people. I mean, they shared their darkest moments with the whole country, essentially. And that took a tremendous amount of courage for them to be so forthcoming. And, as a journalist, those are things you don’t expect you will find."

Perhaps the most moving moments come when Ryan Palmer, whose 20-year-old son, Jeremy, died in September 2013 after he OD’d and was dumped in a driveway by his friends, goes to Manti High School to try to warn other young people off pills and other drugs.

"I think that Ryan so beautifully conveys how a death from an overdose can affect a family and affect an entire community," Ling said.

And she was herself affected by the story. Ling is clearly frustrated and upset that she can’t put another young heroin addict in touch with people who can help her.

"I know journalists are supposed to stay removed, but it’s really hard for me to interact with people who are so deeply in the throes of addiction and interact with other people who’ve had similar experiences and not try to at least connect them," Ling said. "I mean, I know it’s not my job. But it would be remiss for me not to at least try."

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