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Largest Ever Gift To The University Of Utah Aimed At State's Need For Mental Health Services

The University of Utah sign in front a tree-filled quad.
Brian Albers / KUER
In a press conference Monday, the Huntsman family said the decision to donate was unanimous.

With an eye toward addressing mental healthcare in Utah and beyond, the Huntsman family announced today a gift of $150 million to the University of Utah to fund a new institute focused on the issue.

The aim is to bring mental health experts, innovative research, and expanded mental health services to the state. David Huntsman, president and CEO of the Huntsman Foundation, said three generations of his family had discussed the state’s need for mental health services for years and voted unanimously on the donation. 

“When you look at mental health in our society, we are in crisis mode,” said Christena Huntsman Durham, vice chair and executive vice president of the Huntsman Foundation. “I think each one of us deals with mental health, either personally or in our family. It’s time that we take the stigma away.”

The gift is the largest individual donation in the university’s 169-year history. With Monday’s announcement, the Huntsman family has contributed over $650 billion to the University, including a $100 million gift that established the Huntsman Cancer Institute in 1995. 

“What a remarkable gift,” University President Ruth Watkins said in a phone interview. “Very much a game changer in an area of great need.” 

The donation comes at a time when the state is grappling with growing concerns over mental healthcare. A recent report from the Kem C. Gardner Institute found that nearly one in five Utahns experience poor mental health, yet mental health resources in the state have been underfunded and are stretched thin. Over half of Utah adults with mental illness do not receive mental health treatment or counseling, the report found. 

It’s also a particular concern for young people aged 10-24, for whom suicide was the leading cause of death in 2017. 

“It’s an issue at the University of Utah but [also] at every college campus on the nation when you talk with university presidents,” Watkins said. “Everyone is concerned.”

Watkins said students have become more open to expressing their concerns about mental health issues. That is a positive step towards reducing the stigma and misperceptions surrounding mental health issues, she said, but there is still a need for new service models that get more help to people more quickly. 

Officials hope the institute will become a national leader in mental health research and services, serving as a model for other states to follow. Research efforts would focus on identifying genetic risks and other factors that cause or contribute to mental illness. 

The institute would also extend resources to rural communities, which would likely involve increased telehealth services and allow patients to connect with mental health professionals remotely, Watkins said. 

With the Huntsmans’ donation, the university will rebrand the University Neuropsychiatric Institute as the Huntsman Mental Health Institute. The donation also coincides with an ongoing search to bring in a new chair to the Department of Psychiatry, who would also serve as the institute’s CEO. 

David Huntsman said that person would be a national leader in the field who would also help organize a national mental health symposium that is planned to be held in Utah next year. 

The family said the gift is the start of what they hope will be a larger effort to bring more resources to Utah, including additional fundraising efforts through the university and state legislature. 

“This is much bigger than one family and this is much bigger than the University of Utah,” he said. “This will ultimately have to be a community effort.” 

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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