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Huntsman family pledges ‘historic’ $150 million gift to University of Utah to establish mental health institute

Donation is largest single gift ever given to University of Utah

Karen Huntsman, fourth from left, hugs son Jon Jr., former governor of Utah, as other family members look on during a press conference at the University of Utah’s Park Building in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019, where the Huntsman family announced a $150 million commitment to establish the Huntsman Mental Health Institute at the U. The funding, pledged over 15 years, will be used to support research, expand access to patient care and build awareness about mental health.
Karen Huntsman, fourth from left, hugs son Jon Jr., former governor of Utah, as other family members look on during a press conference at the University of Utah’s Park Building in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019, where the Huntsman family announced a $150 million commitment to establish the Huntsman Mental Health Institute at the U. The funding, pledged over 15 years, will be used to support research, expand access to patient care and build awareness about mental health. Other family members pictured include Christopher Huffman, left, Christena Huntsman Durham, second from left, and Peter R. Huntsman, far right.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Huntsman family has pledged a “historic” $150 million gift to the University of Utah to establish the Huntsman Mental Health Institute.

University of Utah President Ruth V. Watkins says it is the largest single gift ever given to the state’s flagship university.

As the family and university officials announced the gift Monday, they said they hope the money will spark a statewide movement in the battle against mental illness, end stigmas and open doors to finding effective treatments.

“As a family, we are so excited to put a name and a face to mental health. And we need to stop the stigma. And I think every family deals with mental health. We have either held the hand of somebody, or had our hand held by somebody dealing with mental health,” said Christena Huntsman Durham, Huntsman Foundation vice chairwoman and executive vice president.

“And we are so excited to put a name and a face to it and start addressing real issues, and stop the judgment.”

The funding, pledged over 15 years, will be used to support research, expand access to patient care and build awareness about mental health. The gift places a particular emphasis on the needs of college-age adults at the university as well as underserved populations in rural Utah.

AnnaMarie Barnes, U. student body president, said students helped bring mental health to the forefront of discussion at the university.

Of the funding, she said, “I think that it will foster a sense of: This campus and this community cares about you, which is half the battle when it comes to mental health. It can be incredibly lonely, and it can be incredibly insular. And knowing that the university, the Huntsmans, members of our community, want to make this investment in the lives of students and not just a one-time investment ... will be tremendously reaffirming of students’ humanity,” Barnes said.

She said the initiative will also help students as they transition out of college and become working members of the community.

“Our parents have left a great legacy. Our dad, his fight was against cancer. This next generation, we really want to attack and deal with mental health,” Durham said.

David Huntsman, foundation president and chief operating officer, said three generations of the Huntsman family voted unanimously to target resources to advance knowledge about mental illness, treatments and patient care.

The family has discussed the possibility of making a gift to help impact mental health in Utah, nationally and internationally, for a couple of years, he said.

“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,” Huntsman said.

The family is prepared to sign a first check Tuesday, he told reporters, and the university already has mental health initiatives in the works.

Watkins described the gift as “transformational.”

“The Huntsman family has once again stepped forward to lead the way on a serious public health issue,” said Watkins in a statement.

“We share a dedication to addressing the mental health needs of our campus and the greater community. We are grateful to Karen and her remarkable family for this transformational gift. Together, we will work to increase positive outcomes, destigmatize the perception of mental illness and enhance the quality of life for families across Utah,” Watkins said.

As part of the agreement with the foundation, the university will recruit a new chairperson of psychiatry who will also serve as the CEO of the mental health institute.

“This gift really helps us to attract the best talent and will help us in the months ahead bring a remarkable leader (to the institute). Who wouldn’t want to join this compelling vision and this opportunity?” Watkins said.

The institute’s new leader will have a “really substantive role in shaping how this gift is used and transforms our campus,” she said.

The Huntsman Mental Health Institute in Research Park in Salt Lake City is pictured on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019.
The University of Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute in Research Park in Salt Lake City is pictured on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Under the agreement, the university will work with the Huntsman family to raise additional funds to support the initiative and to increase awareness in the community about mental health. In recognition of the gift, the U. plans to rename University Neuropsychiatric Institute as the Huntsman Mental Health Institute.

The initiative will also provide financial support to University of Utah Health’s Department of Psychiatry and full-service psychiatric hospital. It also will support mental health services and screenings for the university’s 32,000 students.

Dr. Michael Good, senior vice president for Health Sciences and CEO of University of Utah Health, said as the nation faces a shortage of psychiatrists, the Huntsman family’s gift will enable the university “to support enhanced training for mental and behavioral health professionals and allow us to reimagine care models to better address mental health needs across the state.”

Over the past 30 years, the university’s Department of Psychiatry and the University Neuropsychiatric Institute have positioned the U. as a regional leader in the treatment and research of mental illness, said Good, who is also dean of the School of Medicine.

“This historic donation builds on that legacy and provides the resources to scale both our clinical outreach and our research efforts,” he said.

Retired Sen. Orrin Hatch — who pushed a bill that created a national suicide prevention hotline last year — in a statement Monday said the news made him “hopeful” about resources the gift would provide.

“When it comes to suicide prevention and the effects of mental illness, my heart is both heavy and hopeful — heavy because of the many lives we have already lost in Utah, hopeful because of good people like the Huntsman family and their generous donation to the University of Utah. As with the Huntsman Cancer Institute, the establishment of the Huntsman Mental Health Institute will be transformative and provide life-saving assistance to those suffering,” Hatch said.

A recent university study shows that 1 in 5 five Utah adults experience poor mental health. A national report ranks the Beehive State last in the country in terms of access to mental health care.

Watkins said there is an acute need for additional services and greater understanding about what causes mental illness, including the role of genetics.

Peter R. Huntsman, CEO of the Huntsman Foundation, becomes emotional as he talks about mental health issues in Utah during a press conference at the University of Utah’s Park Building in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019. Huntsman announced a $150 million commitment from the Huntsman family to establish the Huntsman Mental Health Institute at the U. with an initial focus on advancing knowledge and relieving suffering through research-informed treatment of mental illness with a strong focus on improving mental health services for college-age adults, increasing access to mental health services in rural communities across Utah and identifying the genetic underpinnings of mental illness.
Peter R. Huntsman, CEO of the Huntsman Foundation, talks about mental health issues in Utah during a press conference at the University of Utah’s Park Building in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019, where the Huntsman family announced a $150 million commitment to establish the Huntsman Mental Health Institute at the U. The funding, pledged over 15 years, will be used to support research, expand access to patient care and build awareness about mental health.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

The Huntsman Cancer Institute, which was established in 1995 with a $100 million gift from the Huntsman family, manages the Utah Population Database. It is the largest genetic database in the world, with information on more than 11 million people linked to genealogies, health records and vital statistics.

More genes for inherited cancers have been discovered at Huntsman Cancer Institute than at any other cancer center in the world, which include the genes responsible for hereditary breast, ovarian, colon, head and neck cancers as well as melanoma.

“This commitment in no way diminishes our ongoing financial support to continue to build and promote the Huntsman Cancer Institute,” said Huntsman Foundation CEO Peter R. Huntsman in a prepared statement regarding the family’s gift for the mental health institute.

Watkins said the Huntsman family has long demonstrated “a commitment to quality and excellence” in their numerous initiatives and generous giving to the university.

The university is also home to the Jon M. Huntsman Center, a sports and special events arena, and the Jon M. and Karen Huntsman Basketball Center. The family supports numerous presidential faculty chairs across the university.

The latest Huntsman Foundation gift will provide opportunities for the university and the entire state, Watkins said.

“The opportunity to build together in this area, is it is remarkable. I am so grateful to them for the fact that they want to make great things happen for our state,” she said.

Mental illness affects many Utahns personally and the issue is front-of-mind for Utah college students, who in recent years have appealed to state lawmakers and the Utah State Board of Regents about the need for more mental health services on state campuses.

“Every single person in any group conversation will have a personal story of some sort of how mental health difficulties have impacted lives. I know this is an issue that is on the minds of our students, and this gift will be very, very meaningful to them,” Watkins said.

Durham said eliminating the stigma surrounding mental illness and barriers to treatment will take “the whole community’s efforts.”

Mental illness affects every family at some point, she said.

“We’re either the one having our hand held or we are holding somebody else’s hand. We need to be to be better educated and know how we can deal with this crisis, especially in this state,” Durham said.

After careful study and thought, the Huntsman family felt strongly that it should support an initiative with the potential to save lives, increase access to care and enhance knowledge and treatment.

“We recognize we have a significant health crisis in our state and in our communities, when it comes to mental health and all of its forms, and it’s affecting all of our families,” David Huntsman said.

“Many that are suffering don’t have access to the care that they need. The decision by our family to make this gift is just a recognition that there’s so much to be done, and we need to do a better job and we need to start now.”