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What puts Utah on the verge of being a leader in mental health care? Robert Gehrke explains.

It isn’t getting much chatter, but $90 million of Utah’s COVID relief money will go to research and treatment at new facility.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Mark Rapaport speaks at the dedication and launch of Huntsman Mental Health Institute (HMHI), formerly University Neuropsychiatric Institute (UNI), on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021.

When lawmakers met in a special session last week to budget about $1.6 billion in federal COVID relief funds coming to the state, there was an item tucked into the list that went largely unnoticed, overshadowed by the frustrating spectacle our political process has become.

But it deserves attention. Once the circus rolls out of town and the bickering over banning masks and teaching race in schools and grandstanding on gun rights is in the past, this one will actually matter. A lot.

Included in the budget allocations was a sizable chunk, $90 million, that along with $65 million in private donations will build a new integrated mental health research center near the University of Utah campus.

Dr. Mark Rapaport, the new chair of psychiatry at the University of Utah and CEO of the Huntsman Mental Health Institute, said the aim is to get the best people together under one roof and let them “cross-fertilize” and formulate new ways to tackle our most daunting mental health problems.

“It’s all about people, and it’s all about trying to tackle these really disabling issues,” he told me last week. “That’s why we’ve got to do the research, because although our current treatments are good in certain ways, they’re not good enough.”

Mental illness affects nearly one in five U.S. adults, and studies have shown that depression disorders cost the United States more than $326 billion per year. Rapaport hopes they can change that.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

“I’ve never been in a circumstance where all these forces have come together in a way and people are really concerned about mental health,” he said.

His team of researchers will have a new, powerful weapon of sorts at their disposal — the first 7-Tesla MRI machine in the region and the only one in the country devoted to the brain. If you’ve had an MRI done on your knee, for example, it was probably a 1.5 Tesla. These machines are far more powerful, able to look inside the head and see objects or structures smaller than a millimeter.

Rapaport said the 7-T will let researchers witness changes in brain chemistry in very specific regions and monitor functions that may signal psychiatric disorders or neurological disorders. When researchers look at long-haul COVID, for example, many of the symptoms are brain-related — the brain fog, difficulty sleeping and irritability.

Rapaport said scientists from as far away as Sweden have contacted him when they heard the center was getting the 7-T.

He said they hope to break ground on the Utah Mental Health Translational Research Building by the end of the year, but it’s just one piece of this mental health push under the relatively new Huntsman Mental Health Institute.

This week, they will be breaking ground on a mental health crisis center in South Salt Lake City, near the Salt Lake County Jail and one of the homeless resource centers — close proximity to where mental health services are often needed. The notion is that, instead of going to an emergency room or to jail, someone in crisis can go to a more dignified environment.

The 52,000-square-foot building will have 30 temporary beds, where patients can be stabilized and connected with resources, and 24 in-patient beds.

“And of course we’ll do research,” Rapaport said, “to really develop the best ways to care for people in crisis and how to develop services in a wrap-around way.”

The state and Salt Lake County paid about $15 million for the building, the Huntsman family another $20 million.

Later this year, the institute will begin a statewide assessment to identify the mental health needs around the state and devise ways to work with local health departments and schools to deliver services, particularly in parts of rural Utah where access is a challenge.

A lot of the credit for these developments goes to the Huntsman family and their $150 million investment last year that jump-started the effort.

“Utah is 51st in term of resources for mental health, and we hope to be in the top 10 in next 10 to 15 years. [The] only way to get there is funding and leadership,” said Paul Huntsman.

And, yes, Paul is chairman of the board of The Salt Lake Tribune Inc. But even if he wasn’t, I’d still be fired up about this endeavor. We all should be.

Because these new measures, in conjunction with steps the state has already taken — like the statewide crisis hotline, mental health receiving centers and mobile crisis outreach teams — shows Utah finally is serious about addressing mental illness in a way that would have been unfathomable a few years ago. Now, the state is poised to be a national leader.

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