One person dies from an opioid overdose nearly every day in Utah. In this heavily Mormon state, one addict-turned prevention advocate is asking the question: is the LDS church doing enough to address the state’s opioid problem?
Will Ferguson stands in front of a group of sixth graders at Black Ridge Elementary School in Eagle Mountain. He wears his usual outfit: a clean, white baseball cap, white sweatshirt and jean shorts. He towers over the kids holding a Costco-sized bag of candy.
"If I tell you you can have this bag of candy right now, if you come up here and do ten jumping jacks would you do it?" he says.
Several kids answer yes.
"Okay, if I told you to steal from your parents, would you do it? You wouldn’t?"
Ferguson is here to talk about his past addiction to opioids. In 1993 he ruptured four discs in his back playing college basketball. He started taking the painkiller Lortab to keep playing. Then he took Percocet. Ferguson wrote fake prescriptions to get pills at drug stores all around Utah. He tells the kids how both his parents had cancer and he even took their pain medications to feed his habit.
"I went over to Right Aid, looked at all the Tylenol, found the ones that looked just like my parents pills, went home, took their pill bottle, filled it with the Tylenol, took their pills," he says. "I put the pills back up and I watched both my parents suffer and I didn’t care one bit. Man, I think about it right now and it’s just crazy to me that I did that."
Eventually, he got caught. He went to prison for three years for prescription fraud. Ferguson has been clean for almost six years, and in early 2016 he started doing motivational speaking under the name One Addict’s Purpose, to “be real” about addiction.
Ferguson became Mormon about two years ago. One of his biggest criticisms is that for all the money and community involvement of the LDS church, he says officials aren’t doing enough to address Utah’s high rate of drug abuse.
"They all kind of say the same thing. That it’s not really a main focus unless somebody comes to the bishop and talks to the bishop. And that’s the second problem, the bishops and stake presidents have no clue. They have no training."
It’s hard to find numbers about addiction rates for people who are LDS versus those who are not. Public health officials often cite religion as what they call a “protective factor” against addiction. But anecdotally, Mormon culture comes up a lot — the stigma that stops people from talking about using prescription drugs, which leads to abuse.
Nancy Moss works at a recovery program called Davis Behavioral Health.
"In this culture which is highly religious, people don’t usually use substances to change the way they feel. But if a doctor gives you a prescription for something that makes you feel more relaxed, less stressed, less anxious, then that’s okay. And I can use that," Moss says.
LDS Family Services is the department that addresses addiction among members of the church. Joel Allred works with Family Services and he's also a bishop and licensed clinical social worker.
"I think the church is active on the issue," Allred says.
He, like Ferguson, says a church member first goes to their bishop. The bishop decides whether to contact Family Services to assess the person’s addiction and find out if they have insurance or money to pay for treatment. They can also direct them to an LDS 12-step support program which is similar to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
"The main focus is always going to be trying to help people make self-reliant decisions and become self-reliant without taking people’s agency from them," Allred says. "So, the church can do a lot, but if throwing money or throwing other stuff [at the problem] would curb it, well then, we’d already have it solved."
One of the breakdowns in this process, according to former addicts like Ferguson, is that bishops don’t always understand how hard it is to get off opioids.
I asked Allred if bishops know that in these situations they should contact Family Services.
"Not all of them," he says, "So part of it is we’re trying to make ourselves more available to them."
There are recovery programs that use LDS elements. Christian Smith is a co-owner of Renaissance Ranch, a recovery program in Bluffdale.
"When a bishop gets the call ‘my kid’s shooting up heroin, can you help?’ and the challenge that the LDS church has is these bishops are laymen. They’re plumbers. They’re attorneys. They don’t have training in substance use disorders or mental health issues at all," Smith says.
Family Services doesn’t disclose how much money the church gives to treatment programs. Smith says Renaissance Ranch gets donations from the church but the need is there for them to do more.
"I think they’re doing everything within the guidelines that they currently have and are effective. Can they be more effective? I personally think so," he says.
At Black Ridge Elementary, Will Ferguson is finishing his talk with the sixth-grade class. The kids describe what they want to be as adults: a doctor, a veterinarian, a meteorologist.
"Where you gonna go? You gonna be like me? You gonna be like guys doing 20 years in prison?" he asks.
Ferguson says this is a chance for him to show the reality of opioids in Utah that’s not coming from places like the church.
"It’s frustrating because you see so many things that they could be doing, and they don’t," he says.
For him, this is a chance to make a positive impact in a culture that he says needs to do more.