Dr. Thomas Schlenker, director of the Salt Lake City-County Health Department, recently chatted with a silver-haired, churchgoing gentlemen. The man mentioned he had daughters who had done well at Brigham Young University - and a son who was a heroin addict.

The son had been in and out of jail. "He's been a heroin addict for many years," Schlenker quoted the man."I was shocked," Schlenker admitted last week. "But I shouldn't be, because this is happening, and it's happening much more than we have realized." He spoke during a conference in the City and County Building on the state of the community's health.

The conference will be repeated every January, he said. It is a way of taking the area's temperature and assessing where Salt Lake County is doing well and where it needs to improve.

"Salt Lake really stands out as one of the healthiest (places) in the United States," he said. But in certain areas like suicide and drug addiction, improvements are needed badly.

The suicide rate was the most alarming statistic. Salt Lake County's rate in 1996 was 19.3 per 100,000, compared with a 1995 national average of 11 per 100,000.

Schlenker said suicides are only the tip of an iceberg of social disorder. They are part of a cycle of self-destructive behavior that includes drug addiction, violence and irresponsible sex. The high suicide rate in the Salt Lake region is a red flag alerting the community to widespread and serious problems like the heroin addiction that afflicts the distinguished gentleman's son.

In Salt Lake County, users of injected drugs have quadrupled in nine years, he added. For a quarter of them the drug of choice is even worse than heroin: methamphetamine. Heroin is a depressant and may make an addict nod off in a corner, while "meth" is a stimulant that makes an addict aggressive, irrational and sexually demanding.

Methamphetamine use is linked to murder, assault and rape, he said.

"Utah, in fact, is one of the national centers for meth production and use," Schlenker added. In 1997 alone, police busted 180 illegal meth labs in the area. "Who knows how many they missed?"

Compared with the national average, the Salt Lake area does well in:

- Cardiovascular disease. For the country's No. 1 killer, he said, deaths in the Salt Lake area are 27 percent lower than average. He said the good showing results from the healthy lifestyle followed by many and a mild climate that encourages exercise. The healthy lifestyle is credited to LDS Church doctrine that spurns alcohol and tobacco, two drugs that lead to cardiovascular and lung disease and other disorders.

- Lung cancer deaths. "Salt Lake and Utah have the lowest lung cancer rates in the United States because so few people smoke tobacco," says a report distributed at the conference, "Healthy People 2000." The report adds that lung cancer death rates are less than one-half the national figures.

But Schlenker raised a warning flag about smoking. "Despite everything we say, and maybe because of everything, it's still `cool' for teenagers to smoke.

- Female breast cancer deaths. In the Salt Lake area, the rate is 29 percent lower than the national rate. Smoking contributes to breast cancer while multiple births decrease a woman's chance of breast cancer. In both factors, Utah women have an advantage.

- Motor vehicle deaths. The Salt Lake area scored slightly better than the national average in 1996, the latest figure available. But Schlenker said that when the 1997 figures come out, experts should check to see if the I-15 construction and resultant increased traffic in city areas have boosted the death rate.

- Homicide. Murders here are about half the national average.

- Infant mortality. While the rate is 18 percent better than average, the Salt Lake area could do better. During 1966, in the Salt Lake area one-fifth of pregnant women did not seek prenatal care until after the first trimester. This laxity - which increases the chance that a child will die or suffer from a disorder like blindness - should not continue, he said.

Areas where the Salt Lake region compares poorly with the national average are:

- Work-related deaths. The most dangerous occupations in the country are in farming, mining and construction, Schlenker said. Since neither of the first two jobs are abundant in the county, he speculated that the recent construction boom may be contributing to worker deaths.

- Medical care for certain segments of the population. In deaths by diabetes, "our rates locally are significantly worse than they are in the rest of the country." The percent of people suffering from the affliction is normal, but deaths are greater.

"Now, why is that?" he said. "Large proportions of local diabetics do not watch their blood pressure regularly, do not get eye and foot exams and do not even see physicians" on a regular basis. This shows a real deficit in medical care, according to Schlenker.

- Suicide. The suicide rate in Salt Lake City is a shocking 75 percent higher than the national average and the rate has been high for many years. Most of the 153 suicides in 1996 involved troubled young men with guns.

"People who feel that by keeping guns at home they are safer, they are dead wrong."

Health Department statisticians used the latest figures available, which in all cases were the 1996 local rates and the 1995 national rates. One told the Deseret News that when the national 1996 rates become available they are not expected to vary significantly from the previous year's.