It is a truism that probably goes back to Sigmund Freud — if not to Hippocrates — that a significant barrier for people who would benefit from professional care for mental illness or emotional problems is the stigma attached to such maladies.
People who need help are likely to fear that seeking it out would be seen as a sign of weakness or something that would cause friends, family and employers to think less of them, to lose faith, even shun them.
The stigma is real. The fear is well-founded. But widespread reluctance to seek psychiatric help has also obscured another problem. Even when people do screw their courage to the sticking place and reach out for help, it is too often impossible to find it.
There are waiting lists for appointments, shortages of beds and practitioners, questions of costs and insurance coverage. The problem has been particularly shameful in Utah, which ranks at the bottom for availability of mental health care.
Far too often, untreated mental illness can lead to breakdowns that bring sufferers into contact, not with people trained to deal with such incidents, but with the police and the criminal justice system. Even when such encounters do not end in violence, people who should go to a psychiatric facility wind up going to jail, which is good for neither the person in crisis nor for for the jailers, who don’t have the training or the facilities to do what is needed.
Or they end up out on the street, or in shelters for the homeless, which, like jails, don’t offer what people in a mental health crisis need.
Utah’s leaders, to their credit, have said we’ll be having no more of that.
In 2019, the Huntsman Foundation announced a $150 million gift to create, under the wing of the University of Utah, the Huntsman Mental Health Institute. The institute brought in Dr. Mark Rapaport, a recognized leader in the field, as its CEO.
A few weeks ago, as part of its divvying up of federal COVID relief funds, the Utah Legislature showed its members see the need and earmarked $90 toward the HMHI’s mission.
And Wednesday, leaders ceremonially broke ground for what will be the Huntsman Mental Health Institute’s Crisis Center, a much-needed alternative to jail, homelessness, suffering or death for people in acute need of mental health care. It will have room for 30 people needing short-term stabilization care and a 24-bed inpatient facility for those needing long-term care.
The center is the first step in what is to be a nine-acre Campus of Hope in South Salt Lake, dedicated not only to short-term crisis care but to ongoing treatment and research.
The institute is also going the high-tech route, bringing in the very latest in MRI equipment that will be the first of its kind in this country to center its research on the human brain.
All of this is even more important as the world makes its way, we hope, out of the coronavirus pandemic, which can leave some of its victims with ongoing brain maladies that are now very poorly understood.
The creation of the institute is a major step forward for Utah. The investment made by the Huntsman family (including Paul Huntsman, chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune board of directors), the state, Salt Lake County and other donors will save many times its cost in the money now lost to depression and other mental illnesses through lost income, medical care and money spent for the homeless and the criminal justice system.
Alongside the Huntsman Cancer Institute, the new Huntsman Mental Health Institute, will improve our quality of life, and save many lives, in the years to come.