SALT LAKE CITY — The Huntsman Mental Health Institute at the University of Utah was dedicated Thursday in a virtual ceremony held during the coronavirus pandemic that has made the need for mental health care more urgent than ever.
“Today, we find ourselves in the midst of a mental health crisis. The need for accessible, affordable comprehensive mental health services has never been greater. We are vaccinating against COVID-19, but none of us are immune from the effects of mental illness,” according to Dr. Michael L. Good, University of Utah Health CEO.
Good, who is also the university’s senior vice president for health sciences and dean of the School of Medicine, said the pandemic and the resulting economic recession have taken a toll on the mental health of many, including health care workers.
Crisis line counselors are spending 30% longer on the phone assisting callers “with complex mental health challenges,” he said, while more schoolchildren in crisis are reaching out for help through the SafeUT app created to stem rising suicides in the state.
“The pandemic has underscored the need to address mental health with the same urgency that we address other medical interventions,” Good said. “The Huntsman Mental Health Institute will allow us to support enhanced training for mental health professionals and allow us to reimagine care models.”
The Huntsman family announced a $150 million gift over 15 years to the U. in November 2019 to establish the institute, the largest single donation to the flagship of the state’s university system. The late billionaire philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr. funded the cancer institute on the campus.
Now his children are helping in the battle against mental illness with the institute that also bears the family name and focuses on finding effective treatments, supporting research, building awareness and expanding access to patient care, particularly among students and underserved populations throughout Utah.
“The mental health priorities we outlined a year ago are even more pressing today,” said David Huntsman, who with his sister, Christena Huntsman Durham, represented the family at the event. “There’s been a lot of unknowns this last year with the pandemic, but our enthusiasm and momentum has not slowed.”
He said not only was Dr. Mark Rapaport selected as CEO for the institute last November, but research into suicide and the impact of COVID-19 on mental health has been advanced, programs created for students on campus and efforts are underway to integrate mental health care into primary care practices and training.
Also, work has been done with state lawmakers “to identify and address gaps that exist in mental health treatments in Utah,” David Huntsman said, adding that “while we have made great progress, there is much that needs to be done.”
Christena Huntsman Durham said the intent of the institute is to create “a new brand that will unite all of the work currently being done by researchers, clinicians, partners, staff and educators at the university in call centers, research labs, classrooms, community clinics and here at the hospital,” formerly the University Neuropsychiatric Institute.
Rapaport described the institute as partnering with Utahns “to create a living laboratory to solve the complex and daunting mental health and brain problems we face.” Initial priorities include dealing with the “fear and ignorance of stigma, the crisis of suicide” and the need for preventing mental disorders, he said.
The virtual event began with a video featuring a 15-year-old girl describing struggles that led to a “very serious” suicide attempt foiled because she had been talking with someone through the SafeUT app and help was dispatched in time.
She said she has found the “comfort of knowing I can say everything that’s inside me,” through treatment.
Good said the institute is grateful she “feels like she’s getting well and proud to have been part of her healing.”