The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an all-time high in mental health issues across the world and a collaboration of health care partners in Utah aims to help.

Intermountain Healthcare in Murray has joined with the Utah Department of Human Services, Latino Behavioral Health and the Utah Pride Center to address mental health crisis related to COVID-19 by connecting the partner organizations to community contributions totaling $67 million to improve access to mental health care for marginalized people in Utah.

Utah in particular has struggled to address mental health even before the pandemic, ranking last in the nation for mental health access and sixth highest in the nation for suicide deaths per capita in 2019.

“The organizations and groups that we are collaborating with have been the heart and soul of our community,” Intermountain senior vice president and chief community officer Mikelle Moore said on Friday. “We recognize we need to expand our own services, and we’re doing that.”

A handful of health care providers emphasized the need to improve mental health care accessibility in Utah among underrepresented communities that are disproportionately affected by mental health issues, especially LGBTQ and Latino people.

“We all deserve a seat at the table. Diversity and unity are not opposites,” Doug Thomas, director at the Utah Department of Human Services, said.

One way COVID-19 has led to positive developments in mental health access is the drastic increase in telehealth opportunities. Thomas stated that between March and April 2020, Utah saw the greatest increase in telehealth, going from serving just over 200 people to 14,000.

With this spike, it became increasingly important to improve access through language and culture, which led to the development of the Utah disaster crisis counseling line, UTAH STRONG, which can be reached by calling 385-386-2289.

In a state that already ranks high for death by suicide, it is also a leading cause of death for LGBTQ youth in Utah.

Ray Bailey, youth suicide prevention program manager at the Utah Department of Human Services, and also a transgender member of the community, stated that transgender youth, in particular, are considered at high risk for death by suicide.

Bailey stated that, someone who is transgender, they were glad to be working for a program that seeks to lessen those numbers by promoting education on LGBTQ issues, guiding employers to create a safe work environment, advocating for model policies, and promoting positive mental health among queer youth.

“We are not inherently more prone to mental illness, rather we exist in a culture of oppression,” said Michelle Anklin, a licensed clinical social worker at the Utah Pride Center.

The center has moved all of its programming online, including free youth support groups as well as groups for people 18 and older. It also offers individual counseling using grants from Intermountain.

When it comes to accessibility for the Latino community in Utah, the main problems are language barriers, cultural barriers, lack of insurance and documentation issues, explained Javier Allegra, CEO of Latino Behavioral Health.

“The number of Latinx people seeking mental health treatment increased by 63%,” he said. “We don’t have the capacity as a small organization to serve everyone. We have to be creative with providing the services, and the best way we know how is by partnering and collaborating.”

Intermountain has also focused on connecting people with providers in their community through their Behavioral Health Clinical Program.

Because of racism, job loss and other issues brought to light during COVID-19, they launched a hotline at 833-442-2211 to help people understand clinical concerns, manage insurance issues and match them with a provider. This hotline has taken about 6,500 calls from April 2020 to April 2021.

Navigating behavioral health can be challenging, especially for people who may be fragile and already suffering, said Tammer Atallah, licensed clinical social worker and executive clinical director of the program.

“The goal of this service is to really help connect people and make a precise connection so that it limits that risk,” he said. “It’s more important now than ever before.”

Suicide prevention resources

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.

Crisis hotlines

  • Utah County Crisis Line: 801-691-5433
  • Salt Lake County/UNI Crisis Line: 801-587-3000
  • Wasatch Mental Health Crisis Line: 801-373-7393
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Trevor Project Hotline for LGBTQ teens: 1-866-488-7386

Online resources