An unspoken truth about the journey of a thousand miles is that the first and most significant steps often happen in one’s own backyard.
A “historic” gift of $150 million from the Huntsman family to the University of Utah to establish a mental health institute is another move in changing the direction of mental health trends in Utah and beyond. The new institute has the potential to do for mental health what the Huntsman Cancer Center did for cancer research — save lives through unprecedented study and medical prowess.
And it could be a game changer for a mental health crisis gripping the country. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that 1 in 5 Americans experience mental illness each year. In Utah, suicide is the leading cause of death for youths ages 10 to 24.
The dire situation seems to have served a wake up call to many Utahns. Last January, Gov. Gary Herbert initiated a suicide prevention task force comprised of local officials and community leaders. The SafeUT app, developed in partnership with Utah lawmakers, allows youths to confidentially report peers thinking of harming themselves and provides 24/7 access to a counselor. In September, state officials and private donors announced a statewide campaign to change stigmas surrounding mental health.
Some criticized that campaign as a superficial or hollow gesture, but we argued any step toward saving lives is a step worth taking. What’s more, these pivotal steps are largely funded and propelled by the private sector — a manifestation of the power people have when they rally together for change.
David Huntsman, the Huntsman Foundation’s president and chief operating officer, said of the largest single donation to the university, “We’ve been investigating how to make the greatest impacts and who the best partners would be. As we’ve explored that, we’ve come to the conclusion that the best partner is in our own backyard, the University of Utah.”
Gratefully, solutions need not always be found afar.
Steps like the Huntsman grant started with the acts of individuals who saw a need for change. They started with parents seeking better mental health resources, youths raising their voices after the pain of losing a friend or family member to suicide and educators using updated material and media stories providing in-depth reporting on the issues.
Utah is last in the nation for mental health rankings, according to the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, making a state-of-the-art mental health institute that much more significant and necessary. According to the study, at least half of adults in the state with a mental illness did not receive treatment or counseling in the past year, and every county faces mental health provider shortages.
The Huntsman gift may help tip the scales in favor of success by offering better resources, research and access to health data, but it won’t be the final straw. That will be the work of individual Utahns — parents, friends, siblings, peers — who embrace with empathy, listen with courage and acknowledge the invisible suffering of others around them. Only together can Utah move forward on its long road toward healthier communities.