Over the weekend, I felt the familiar rumble of a Dodge Grand Caravan under my feet and in my hands as I drove the rest of the News team and multiple other Statesman staff down to Orem, Utah for the College Media Workshop at Utah Valley University.
The Dodge Grand Caravan, seemingly the poster child for Mormon families everywhere, lacked only our stick-figure family on the back to make the road trip down I-15 complete. Loaded to the brim with students, laptops and copies of the Statesman to trade with other schools, I felt truly like a local, waving to other minivans on the road and enduring the traffic just south of Salt Lake City.
I am from Kansas City, Missouri originally, and without boring readers with my love of home, I can confidently say that coming to Utah was a culture shock on many levels. I am not a member of the LDS church and have no familial connection to it. I like to learn about and respect all religions, and luckily most 18-25 year old Mormons have great teaching skills. The religion fascinates me and I have loved getting to know the nuances of the LDS community, though I do miss talking about coffee and tattoos. Even among those who aren’t members of the LDS church, religion plays a key role in the state, as evidenced by the ghost towns that Sundays create.
However, on the drive down to Orem, the abundance of billboards touting religious or conservative ideals shocked me. Constantly bombarded with messages like “God Created. Period.” and “Cosmopolitan is Porn”, I was shown the lack of prioritization that Utah has created.
Before moving to Logan, I did plenty of research on the state to figure out what I was moving into, and found some surprising facts. For example, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Utah has the 5th-highest suicide rate in the country, especially among young men aged 15-25. Listed below states with significantly lower populations, namely Wyoming, Montana, Alaska and New Mexico, Utahns must wonder what is causing such a spike in self-inflicted death. Among those struggling with depression, there is a tendency in Utah to pursue only counseling provided through churches and God, rather than accepting these issues as mental health crises and using therapists and antidepressants to combat them. Dialogue makes a difference, and the more Utahns view mental health as a lack of God, the more young people will avoid medical help, or be pushed away from it by their families.
The opioid epidemic, which has finally began to take a front seat in Utahns’ worry baskets, is another one of the biggest killers in the state. According to the Utah Health Department, of the 357 overdose deaths in 2015, 282 were due to opioids — which cause an average of six deaths per week in the state. Drug poisonings and overdoses are the leading cause of death for adults aged 25-54, according to worldlifeexpectancy.com.
The problem with these two epidemics, which claimed a combined 1,224 lives in Utah over the course of 2015, lies not in our ability to address them, but in Utah’s desire to sweep them under the rug.
During our trip south from Logan, there was not a single billboard depicting problems with opioid overdoses or begging parents to help their struggling teenagers with depression. However, there were at least three billboards about God and/or creationism, and an equal amount describing the supposed horrors of pornography addiction. I am in no way endorsing the consumption of pornography, and am not knocking religion — but the problems Utah sees affecting its kids and adults are so much bigger than some naked people or strongly backed science such as evolution.
From what I have read, pornography has killed zero people in its existence, and while exploiting women and teaching men the wrong way to go about fornication, has hardly any lasting health effects, at least much less than opioid addiction. Pornography is not a good thing, but to ignore deadly and devastating issues, transferring our worry into smaller and less horrifying affairs, is detrimental to our ability to fix things — like suicide and opioids — that are actually taking people’s lives. The longer we trivialize such issues like pornography, the more lives we will lose to suicide and opioid overdose.
As far as the creationist billboards, I’m not going to go deep into creationism, but evolution is proven and testable by science. Humans came from other creatures, and while that may contradict the narrative found in the Book of Genesis, I believe religion and science can coexist. God is a loving entity and wants the best for humans. If you believe God created the Universe and the Earth, don’t you think that He would want us to learn the rules of how it works? Evolution may be a scientific process, but it can also work very well in religious studies.
If the people of Utah wanted to embrace God’s love and share His compassion, Utahns could do so much more. Rather than channeling money into “Porn Kills Love” campaigns, money could be given to scientific studies about depression in youth — especially those in large families. If you care about your neighbors as Jesus taught, support more studies at our top-rate universities to combat the opioid epidemic in our beautiful state. If Utahns can band together around the right issues, we will have more time and lives to combat others. The longer we trivialize such issues like pornography and creationism, the more lives we are going to lose to suicide and opioid overdose.