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How Utah is tackling the mental health crisis on its college campuses

Utah Legislature one of the most pro-mental health bodies in the country, Huntsman Mental Health Institute CEO says

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

Five years ago, student leaders at Utah’s public colleges and university petitioned the then-Utah Board of Regents to confront what students described as a mental health crisis on state-supported campuses.

The board formed a working group that implemented a wide variety of supports, ranging from a SafeUT smartphone app for college students to adding more university programs to train mental health professionals, as well as initiatives to improve access to care.

A historic gift of $150 million from the Huntsman family in 2019 to establish the Huntsman Mental Health Institute, support research, access to mental health, train more providers and serve psychiatric patients also provided opportunities for the state’s higher education system to better serve students’ needs.

“As you know, student mental health is a huge issue. It’s been that way even before COVID. but now (it’s) accelerated,” Lisa Michele Church, a member of the Utah Board of Higher Education, said recently.

To that end, Huntsman Mental Health Institute CEO Dr. Mark Rapaport and Utah’s Commissioner of Higher Education David Woolstenhulme have been meeting to discuss ways the system and institute can continue to collaborate.

One collaboration involves taking crisis services to directly to students.

Placing a mobile crisis team at the University of Utah “has been so successful that we’re attempting to partner with the commissioner and others to bring this pilot to other universities within USHE (Utah System of Higher Education),” said Rapaport.

Discussions are underway with Southern Utah University and Utah Valley University to embed crisis teams on their campuses, he said.

Another significant effort underway has been to partner on a project to address stigma surrounding mental illness.

“We are going to be launching in February what we hope will be an annual anti-stigma campaign for all of USHE called ‘Healing Out Loud.’ The intent behind this is to ask students on all of our campuses to compete in a local contest at each campus where they’ll be developing some type of public service announcement be it around TikTok or Instagram or traditional film,” he said.

Winners will come to Salt Lake City for training with the Utah Film Institute and to compete in a statewide competition. The initiative also involves the Sundance Institute.

“We’re really excited about this opportunity because we think if we begin the discussion this way, it will facilitate over time, greater breakdown of stigma, greater opportunity for our students to get access and to feel safe discussing their mental health needs,” he said.

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.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

The institute has also partnered with Weber State University to develop crisis worker coursework and a certification program.

“There’s a dearth of crisis workers in our state and innovative programs like this, partnering amongst USHE members, is really going to be critical for us in increasing the workforce,” said Rapaport, a nationally recognized clinician and researcher.

The institute hopes to launch a similar program at the University of Utah’s College of Social Work in the fall of 2022, he said.

Rapaport said the overarching goal of the Huntsman Mental Health Institute is to “address the big issues, stigma and prejudice, the social determinants of mental and physical health. How do we prevent or have early interventions at least for children, adolescents and young adults? As you know, 75% of all mental disorders begin between the ages of 10 and 24,” he said.

The institute seeks to create “innovative and sustainable treatment models and really tackle the big issues be in suicide or substance use disorders, or psychosis or depression. And the intent of the institute is to create a structure that will convene and bring together the best individuals from all fields to study these issues.”

Institute leaders believe Utah can become “a living laboratory where we come up with the best answers and then we’re able to share those answers nationally and internationally,” Rapaport said.

Support from the Utah Legislature has been instrumental to the institute’s work and other mental health initiatives to improve Utahns’ lives, he said.

“The state Legislature here in Utah has been remarkable. The over the last decade, the state Legislature has actually dedicated $175 million towards mental health and mental health research. The Legislature also is, believe it or not, one of the most progressive legislative bodies in the country when it comes to passing pro-mental health legislation.”