New CEO chosen for Huntsman Mental Health Institute, which will research anxiety and the genetics of suicide

(Photo courtesy of the University of Utah) Pictured is the current University Neuropsychiatric Institute that will soon become the Huntsman Mental Health Institute.

The new CEO named Monday to lead a first-of-its-kind mental health institute at the University of Utah said it is beyond time to start addressing and solving “these frequently ignored challenges.”

Dr. Mark Rapaport, a nationally recognized clinician who has spent his career studying the brain, will now take the helm of the Huntsman Mental Health Institute. His first priority, he said, will be improving public awareness of mental illness. Particularly in Utah, he added, that will include combating a pervasive culture that stigmatizes getting help for anxiety and depression.

“We really will change the face of how brain disorders and psychiatric disorders are thought of here,” he said during a virtual news conference announcing his position. “They are not personality weaknesses or character flaws. They are brain circuitry disorders.”

About 40 people online for the Zoom meeting clapped and cheered.

Rapaport said his efforts will start with a campaign around the new resources coming online under his leadership — including additional digital counseling during the pandemic. In recent years, the rates of mental illness have grown worse, he added, and they’ve worsened more with the isolation of COVID-19, which has brought with it a “tsunami of mental health and brain disorders.” He hopes that different approaches, such as telehealth, can expand who receives care.

(Photo courtesy of the University of Utah) Pictured is Mark Rapaport, the newly named CEO of the Huntsman Mental Health Institute.

His appointment comes one year after Utah’s prominent Huntsman family gifted the University of Utah with $150 million from the Huntsman Foundation to establish the new institute focused on treatment and research. Paul Huntsman, chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board, is also on the board of the Huntsman Foundation.

Naming the CEO puts the center another step closer to launching. A full rollout is expected early next year.

Members of the Huntsman family, following the lead of their late patriarch, Jon M. Huntsman Sr., are major contributors to the U., and this donation establishes the second institute bearing their name. Huntsman Sr., who became a billionaire with his chemical company, gave hundreds of millions of dollars to create the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

He died in February 2018, and his wife and children have promised to continue his philanthropic efforts now with a focus on mental health.

“There is much more we need to do to expand access to services so no individual is without care and suffering alone,” Christena Huntsman Durham, one of Huntsman Sr.'s daughters and executive vice president of the Huntsman Foundation, said Monday.

This has been a deeply personal endeavor for her family, she added, which has members who have struggled with issues around mental health “as I’m sure every family has.”

Now led by Rapaport, the institute will expand and absorb the existing University Neuropsychiatric Institute at the U., combining with the school’s Department of Psychiatry, too, for a major, interconnected and interdisciplinary approach to mental illness. More clinicians and social workers will be hired — though exact numbers were unavailable Monday — and more students trained, more researchers tasked with innovating new ways to provide services to patients more efficiently.

A primary goal also will be providing additional access to mental health care for college-age and rural patients in a state with some of the worst mental health statistics in the nation. Utah has the sixth highest rate of suicide. And it’s the leading cause of death for those ages 10 to 17 here. But the state is ranked 51st in the nation for availability of resources.

“One of the stunning things about mental health difficulties is that many emerge during the college years or young adulthood,” said U. President Ruth Watkins. “We know this is an urgent concern for families in Utah.”

The U. long has been focused on providing mental health care for the state, but a lack of funding has undermined some efforts in recent years. The school, for instance, staffs the main 24-hour suicide prevention lifeline for Utah, as well as Salt Lake County, and it runs the SafeUT app that puts students in touch with trained therapists.

Last year, state auditors found those programs were running at a $1 million deficit. And without more staff answering the growing numbers of calls, they warned that response time could lag and some people might have to redial to get through. Any delay could potentially stop someone from seeking help.

“We knew we could do better,” said Michael Good, the senior vice president for health sciences at the U., who also oversees University of Utah Health. “There just aren’t enough mental health professionals.”

That report drove the Huntsman family, in part, to invest in rebuilding the U.'s mental health programs. Now, Rapaport will oversee 10 existing behavioral health clinics, a department of more than 300 faculty and staff and soon an expanded 170-bed inpatient unit.

Rapaport called the institute “an audacious vision” on Monday.

“It has never occurred in the history of psychiatry,” he added. “We will create a living laboratory to solve the daunting and complex mental health problems we face.”

He hopes to have researchers studying the best early interventions to prevent suicide, new treatments for obsessive compulsive disorder never looked at before and medications that might help people better overcome post-traumatic stress disorder. He especially wants mild cases to be addressed before they spiral into crises.

Part of that, too, will be dealing with a Utah culture in which mental illness is often hidden away.

In joining the institute, Rapaport leaves his previous job as the head of psychiatry at Emory University in Georgia. Emory has a similar setup to the U., with a large medical complex attached to the university, and there Rapaport co-created the Emory Brain Health Center. He also previously worked at the University of California, Los Angeles, as the chair of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and as professor of psychiatry at both Cedars-Sinai and the David Geffen School of Medicine. He also previously worked at the University of California, San Diego, where he graduated from medical school and completed his residency.

He has extensively studied pharmaceuticals for depression — including the benefits of massage — as well as the genetic underpinnings of mental illness. That’s of particular interest to the Huntsman family, which has also focused on heredity in its research at the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

Huntsman Durham added that some efforts already are underway. The new institute has, in its beginning months, trained 500 staff and student leaders at the U. in “mental health first aid” to recognize and respond to the signs of mental illness or substance abuse on campus.

Under the direction of the institute, the school also will soon launch a crisis response program for those living in the dorms.

Huntsman Durham said they have also received two grants for research projects, one focused on the links between dental care and mental health. The other is studying mental exhaustion, commonly referred to as burnout, and how to fight it.

“While we have made significant progress," she said, “we have a long way to go.”

That will start, Rapaport added, with tearing down the barriers that keep people from talking about and getting help for mental illness. It cannot be ignored any longer.

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.