COVID-19 made the need for mental health care “more urgent,” according to local leaders, and the new Huntsman Mental Health Institute will continue to help Utahns years after the pandemic.
”No one could have predicted what came next and how our lives would be upended by the pandemic since then,” said Ruth Watkins, outgoing president at the U., in a video.
The university’s 170-bed hospital facility and network of outpatient clinics, formerly the University Neuropsychiatric Institute, are now under the new Huntsman Mental Health Institute brand.
Going forward, leaders’ priorities include addressing “the fear and ignorance of stigma, the crisis of suicide,” preemptive interventions for mental disorders in younger people, and rural mental health care, among other topics, according to Dr. Mark Rapaport, the institute’s CEO and chair of the psychology department.
The Beehive State and the nation “were already in the midst of a mental health care crisis” before the coronavirus pandemic, said Michael Good, University of Utah Health CEO and senior vice president for health sciences.
“Utah is among a group of states that has the highest prevalence of mental health disorders in children and adolescents, age 6 to 17,” he said, referencing a recent report from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.
Utah also has one of “the highest prevalence of youth with untreated mental health needs,” Good said, adding that “children from racial and ethnic minority populations frequently face a disproportionate likelihood of experiencing mental health disorders.”
According to Good, “the need for accessible, affordable and comprehensive mental health services has never been greater than it is now,” as people face economic stressors and the pandemic “takes a significant emotional and psychological toll on our health care workers.”
“We are vaccinating against COVID-19, but none of us are immune from the effects of mental illness,” he said.
Since early 2020, Good said their crisis line workers have seen “a 30% increase in the amount of time they spend on the phone assisting individuals with complex mental health challenges.”
“At least at the outset of the pandemic when it started, we’re seeing rates of PTSD, depression and anxiety in emergency responders that look more like rates that we saw after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina,” said Dr. Andrew Smith, director of the occupational trauma program, who’s researching how COVID-19 affects health care workers.
The video released Thursday included Kaiti, a crisis counselor, who was identified only by her first name. When Kaiti answers the phone and asks how she can help, she said sometimes callers are crying.
“You know that they have been holding on to something for a long time,” Kaiti said.
She helps the callers take deep breaths, she said, and tries to connect with them about their lives.
“We all come from different backgrounds and have different perspectives, but the feelings are the same. I know what it feels like to be hopeless. I know what it feels like to be fearful and anxious. I know what it feels like to be depressed. So, that is something that I can touch on,” she said.
The video also included 15-year-old Emma, who said she found help for her mental health through the SafeUT Crisis Chat and Tip Line.
“I feel like it’s just a comfort of knowing I can say everything that’s been inside me, and it’s their job to listen,” she said.
The institute’s logo, which was unveiled Thursday, includes the outline of a person’s head with a heart inside, which health care leaders said show how mental health is connected to physical health. David Huntsman, president and COO, and Christena Huntsman Durham, who is the executive vice president of the Huntsman Foundation, revealed the brand and highlighted what’s been accomplished since the institute was announced.
“We have advanced research initiatives related to suicide and the impact of COVID on mental health,” “created programs to address mental health challenges facing students on campus,” “worked to integrate mental health care in primary care practices and advanced training,” and “worked with state leaders and lawmakers to identify and address the gaps that exist in mental health treatments in Utah,” according to David Huntsman. And there’s more to do, he said.
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.
After he died in February 2018, his family promised to continue his philanthropic efforts.
Editor’s note • If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.
Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, chairman of the board of the nonprofit Salt Lake Tribune, Inc., is one of Jon M. Huntsman Sr.’s sons.