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Park City • As a parent who once watched his teenage daughter attempt suicide with a steak knife, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff wants Utahns to be open about their family members' struggles with mental health issues and substance abuse.

His daughter, now 19, has struggled with impulse control and decision-making, challenged by the fetal alcohol spectrum disorder caused by her birth mother's cocaine and alcohol use during pregnancy. Danielle was 14 when she struggled with Shurtleff over the knife; she has self-medicated with drugs and alcohol and repeatedly cut her body.

But now working and gaining self-esteem, Danielle recently had two words tattooed, one on each wrist: "Never again."

Shurtleff shared the update with professionals at a troubled youth conference organized by CRC Health Group Thursday in Park City, joining former U.S. Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey.

The drug and alcohol abuse that affects thousands of Utahns and millions of Americans is often something many families don't want to discuss, fearful of the lingering stigma, said McCaffrey, a retired four-star general. War heroes are decorated, he said, but not people in recovery: "They're invisible."

An estimated 178,000 Utahns need drug and alcohol treatment, yet only 15,000 receive help, according to federal data.

One emerging treatment that could transform the field is the development of new monthly maintenance medication for opiate addictions, said Phil Herschman, CRC's chief clinical officer. The company, the largest substance abuse and behavioral health provider in the nation, is developing a program with the drug Vivitrol.

"Now we see addiction as a disease of the brain," he said.

CRC Health Group has run several treatment programs for inmates.

The majority of prisoners nationwide test positive for illegal drugs upon arrest, officials said.

Shurtleff pointed to Utah's Drug Offender Reform Act program, which offered treatment options for lawbreakers before it was drastically shrunk by budget cuts, as an effort that needs to be championed.

But in light of the current economy, he said, it will likely be several years before legislators will restore funding. In a fiscally conservative state such as Utah, some politicians believe social problems like substance abuse shouldn't be the government's bailiwick, he added. "That's something you fight against constantly," he said.

Reflecting on his daughter's difficult adolescence, Shurtleff remembered the helplessness he and his wife felt as parents. "I just thought, all I have to do is love her," he said.

In the end, professionals helped her, again and again.

"You are the heroes," he said.


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