With $150 million gift from the Huntsmans, the University of Utah will create a mental health institute

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Karen Huntsman and her children gave a $150 million gift from the Jon M. Huntsman family to establish the Huntsman Mental Health Institute to bolster the existing University Neuropsychiatric Institute and psychiatry department, Nov. 4, 2019.

The University of Utah hopes to become a national leader in mental health delivery with a $150 million gift from the Huntsman family to establish a new institute.

The major gift will create the Huntsman Mental Health Institute to bolster the existing University Neuropsychiatric Institute and psychiatry department with a focus on improving public awareness of mental illness, research into genetic causes, and access — especially for college-age and rural patients, said university President Ruth Watkins.

"This is transformative for the university, for the state, and can serve as a model for others as well," Watkins said.

The university didn’t yet have details as to how many clinicians, researchers and staff members would be hired with the gift. But Watkins said the institute will have a strong emphasis on innovating new ways to provide services to patients more efficiently in a state with some of the worst mental health statistics in the nation.

The Huntsman family members, following the lead of the late Jon M. Huntsman Sr., are major contributors to the University of Utah, and this gift establishes the second institute bearing the family name. Huntsman Sr., who became a billionaire with his chemical company, donated hundreds of millions of dollars to create the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

He died in February 2018 and his family has promised to continue his philanthropic efforts.

“We’ve seen too many people suffer for too long,” said David Huntsman, Huntsman Sr.'s son and president and chief operating officer of the Huntsman Foundation. “There’s so much that needs to be done when it comes to mental health.”

The public awareness emphasis was of particular importance to the family, said Christena Huntsman Durham, one of Huntsman Sr.'s daughters and executive vice president of the Huntsman Foundation.

"Each of us has dealt with it in our families, and we are just excited to be able to change the stigma and help people talk about it openly," she said. "No one really wants to put a face to mental health because of the stigma; that is something that we want to change."

Watkins said improved access to screenings and care is especially crucial for college students.

“Many mental health difficulties ... appear during the college-age years of 18 to 25,” Watkins said. "It’s an important time to think about what we’re doing for our youth.”

Better access for college students has been a long time coming, said AnnaMarie Barnes, the university’s student body president.

“Hundreds of students over the years have been involved in drawing attention to this issue,” Barnes said.

Access to mental health care is a pervasive issue across the state, with less than half of Utahns with mental health problems receiving treatment, according to research released this summer by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute and the Utah Hospital Association.

“This is a collective failure on a state that has one of the youngest populations, the state that has one of the strongest budgets, ... and greatest foundations of faith in the United States,” Peter Huntsman, another of Huntsman Sr.'s sons, said on Monday. “It’s time that we make that difference.”

The problem is most pronounced in rural areas, where study participants reported waiting for months for appointments — if they were able to find any mental health specialists in their insurance networks in the first place.

“There just aren’t enough mental health professionals,” said Michael Good, CEO of University of Utah Health and dean of the School of Medicine. “We need to do better.”

Utah psychiatrists have said their calendars often are filled with clients who started out with mild or moderate depression and anxiety — but their symptoms escalated while they either went without care or received care from family doctors who didn’t feel they had the expertise to prescribe higher doses of medications.

The gift will “allow us to reimagine care teams and how to better deliver mental health services across our state and across our region,” Good said.

With more resources for rural support, university psychiatrists also may be able to help those doctors get a handle on those initially mild cases before they spiral into crises, Watkins said.

Early intervention also is one of the Institute’s goals as it focuses on research into hereditary factors in mental illness, she said.

“One logical theme for the future is genetics and biological bases [of mental illness], given the strength of the university ... in genetics,” Watkins said.

The gift also will help the university recruit a new chair for the psychiatry department, who will also be the institute’s CEO. “The opportunity to attract the top talent in the nation will be a very important part of this gift,” Watkins said.

The combination of research and clinical expansion is what can make the institute unique, David Huntsman said.

“The establishment of a comprehensive mental health institute that focuses on the full range of issues is something we’re not aware exists anywhere in the country,” he said. “We will be setting a new standard when it comes to mental health.”

Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, The Tribune’s publisher, is one of Jon M. Huntsman Sr.'s sons.