SALT LAKE CITY — For the past couple of years, Amber Baum has pretended like her daughter never existed.
It was easier to do that, she said, than accept that 22-year-old McKenzie Baum died from a heroin overdose.
"There are so many things I wish I would've known," the Lehi woman said Wednesday, shaking her head that the antidote, Narcan, then available only by prescription, might have saved her daughter's life.
"But she made her own choices," she said.
Kenzie Baum died at her mother's home in 2013 after having recently been released from a treatment center, as is the fate for many who die from opiate overdoses. She is one of hundreds of adults — an estimated 33 per month — who die from opiate drug overdoses every year in Utah.
In fact, Utah ranks fourth in the nation for drug overdose deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"It goes from tolerance to dependence to addiction to overdose and death for far too many Utahns," said Dr. Erik Christensen, chief medical examiner with the Utah Department of Health. "It's time to stop the epidemic."
The health department Wednesday kicked off a new public awareness campaign, "Stop the Opidemic," to bring an end to the devastation that opioid misuse and addiction has on individuals, families and communities throughout the state.
The campaign aims to educate Utahns on the dangers of opioids, even taking them when prescribed, the signs and symptoms of overdose, and the importance of having antidote medication on hand whenever drugs are being used or suspected of being in the home.
Celeste Cecchini, of Taylorsville, said she carries several Narcan/naloxone kits in her purse because "you never know when you might need it." Had she had the overdose-reversal medication on May 12, 2015, when she found her 33-year-old son overdosed on her bathroom floor, he may still be alive today.
"We didn't know he was addicted," said her husband, Dennis Cecchini. "We forced him into treatment … ways that will haunt us forever."
Tennyson Cecchini allegedly began using opioids about age 23 or 24, his parents estimate, after an injury received while playing hockey. He likely turned to heroin when prescription pain pills became too expensive.
They never suspected any of it.
"People who are suffering this kind of thing are very, very capable of hiding the addiction," Dennis Cecchini said. "We were really oblivious, and that's what makes this disease so insidious."
He believes the "business as usual" way addiction and substance abuse disorders are perceived and handled in the public and medical fields are "killing our children." He spends all his time advocating for better methods, saying "no one should lose their child like that."
"We need to change the paradigms in people's heads," Dennis Cecchini said. "People need to talk about it for what it is. It is a serious disease, and it needs serious treatment."
The public campaign is just one way to save lives, Christensen said. Naloxone kits, he said, became widely available after the 2014 Legislature permitted pharmacies across the state to sell them without a prescription.
Lawmakers this year are seeking multiple changes from how opiates are prescribed, to encouraging insurance companies to set various policies on opioid drug coverage, relieving liability of people who administer naloxone in an overdose situation, and adding new controlled substances to a statewide database to better enforce their use, among others.
"This is not a problem that can be solved with one group making a change," Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, said Wednesday during a House Health and Human Services Committee meeting.
Ward has proposed HB90, which would invite insurance companies to be part of the solution.
"I believe it will require some steps from the Legislature, some steps from the community, some steps from physicians and some steps from insurance companies — all of the pieces that make up health care to make a difference in this," he said.
Ward said his bill is "a lighter touch" than requiring physicians to change prescribing practices, which was an option but was not liked by many lawmakers during the legislative interim study period on this issue.
"Families are looking for every effort available to arrest the opioid epidemic and the dependency on opiates long term," said Mary Jo McMillen, director at Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness. She said the more information and resources made available to families "is helping them not feel ashamed of their loved ones being addicts."
It is estimated that 80 percent of heroin users are introduced to opiates through a legitimate prescription from a doctor, though Christensen said there are things that can be done to limit exposure to potentially harmful medications and possibly prevent long-term addiction.
He cautions people to steer clear of opioids in the first place, asking physicians about safer approaches that may be more effective for pain management; stop taking pain pills if they aren't necessary; never share them with others; dispose properly of unused portions; reach out to family and friends who may be struggling; and carry naloxone in case of an overdose.
Amber Baum said there are other ways to guess whether your child needs help — her spoons kept going missing, she oddly found tin foil and a broken light bulb in her daughter's room — and she wishes she would've known of them before it was too late.
"I wanted to think the best. I expect the best out of everyone and would never assume anything," she said, adding that she spent a lot of time with McKenzie throughout high school, where it is believed the teen became addicted.
"I never had any doubt that the girl could've done whatever she wanted in life," Amber Baum said, fighting back tears. "She was beautiful. She was smart. And her personality did not end. Kenzie had it all. She was something else."
And to think that it all could've been avoided is difficult for the still-grieving mother. She said she never wants anyone to have to go through what she has, and if her efforts and sharing her daughter's story "helps another mother save their child and not have to pretend she doesn't exist, it will mean everything to me."
For more information about the statewide campaign "Stop the Opidemic," visit opidemic.org.