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Huntsman family pledges ‘historic’ $150M gift to University of Utah to establish mental health institute

By Marjorie Cortez, KSL | Updated - Nov. 4, 2019 at 2:40 p.m. | Posted - Nov. 4, 2019 at 10:19 a.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — The Huntsman family has pledged a “historic” $150 million gift to the University of Utah to establish the Huntsman Mental Health Institute.

University officials say it is the largest single gift ever given to the state’s flagship university.

Full details of the gift will be revealed at a press conference at the John R. Park Building later this morning.

The funding, pledged over 15 years, will be used to support research, expand access to patient care and build awareness about mental health. The gift places a particular emphasis on the needs of college-age adults at the university as well as underserved populations in rural Utah.

“Our parents have left a great legacy. Our dad, his fight was against cancer. This next generation, we really want to attack and deal with mental health,” said Christena Huntsman Durham, Huntsman Foundation vice chairwoman and executive vice president.

“We’re so proud to stand up and put a name and face to mental health because people aren’t running to put up their name on it and address mental health because of the stigma,” she said.

David Huntsman, foundation president and chief operating officer, said three generations of the Huntsman family voted unanimously to target resources to advance knowledge about mental illness, treatments and patient care.

The family has discussed the possibility of making a gift to help impact mental health in Utah, nationally and internationally, for a couple of years, he said.

“We’ve been investigating how to make the greatest impacts and who the best partners would be. As we’ve explored that, we’ve come to the conclusion that the best partner is in our own backyard, the University of Utah,” Huntsman said.

University of Utah President Ruth V. Watkins described the gift as “transformational.”

“The Huntsman family has once again stepped forward to lead the way on a serious public health issue,” said Watkins in a statement.

“We share a dedication to addressing the mental health needs of our campus and the greater community. We are grateful to Karen and her remarkable family for this transformational gift. Together, we will work to increase positive outcomes, destigmatize the perception of mental illness and enhance the quality of life for families across Utah,” Watkins said.

Our dad, his fight was against cancer. This next generation, we really want to attack and deal with mental health.

–Christena Huntsman Durham

As part of the agreement with the foundation, the university will recruit a new chairperson of psychiatry who will also serve as the CEO of the mental health institute.

“This gift really helps us to attract the best talent and will help us in the months ahead bring a remarkable leader (to the institute). Who wouldn’t want to join this compelling vision and this opportunity?” Watkins said.

The institute’s new leader will have a “really substantive role in shaping how this gift is used and transforms our campus,” she said.

Under the agreement, the university will work with the Huntsman family to raise additional funds to support the initiative and to increase awareness in the community about mental health. In recognition of the gift, the U. plans to rename University Neuropsychiatric Institute as the Huntsman Mental Health Institute.

The initiative will also provide financial support to University of Utah Health’s Department of Psychiatry and full-service psychiatric hospital. It also will support mental health services and screenings for the university’s 32,000 students.

Dr. Michael Good, senior vice president for Health Sciences and CEO of University of Utah Health, said as the nation faces a shortages of psychiatrists, the Huntsman family’s gift will enable the university “to support enhanced training for mental and behavioral health professionals and allow us to reimagine care models to better address mental health needs across the state.”

The University of Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute in Research Park in Salt Lake City is pictured on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019. Photo: Steve Griffin, KSL

Over the past 30 years, the university’s Department of Psychiatry and the University Neuropsychiatric Institute have positioned the U. as a regional leader in the treatment and research of mental illness, said Good, who is also dean of the School of Medicine.

“This historic donation builds on that legacy and provides the resources to scale both our clinical outreach and our research efforts,” he said.

A recent university study shows that 1 in 5 five Utah adults experience poor mental health. A national report ranks the Beehive State last in the country in terms of access to mental health care.

Watkins said there is an acute need for additional services and greater understanding about what causes mental illness, including the role of genetics.

The Huntsman Cancer Institute, which was established in 1995 with a $100 million gift from the Huntsman family, manages the Utah Population Database. It is the largest genetic database in the world, with information on more than 11 million people linked to genealogies, health records and vital statistics.

More genes for inherited cancers have been discovered at Huntsman Cancer Institute than at any other cancer center in the world, which include the genes responsible for hereditary breast, ovarian, colon, head and neck cancers as well as melanoma.

“This commitment in no way diminishes our ongoing financial support to continue to build and promote the Huntsman Cancer Institute,” said Huntsman Foundation CEO Peter R. Huntsman in a prepared statement regarding the family’s gift for the mental health institute.

Watkins said the Huntsman family has long demonstrated “a commitment to quality and excellence” in their numerous initiatives and generous giving to the university.

The university is also home to the Jon M. Huntsman Center, a sports and special events arena, and the Jon M. and Karen Huntsman Basketball Center. The family supports numerous presidential faculty chairs across the university.

The latest Huntsman Foundation gift will provide opportunities for the university and the entire state, Watkins said.

“The opportunity to build together in this area, is it is remarkable. I am so grateful to them for the fact that they want to make great things happen for our state,” she said.

Mental illness affects many Utahns personally and the issue is front-of-mind for Utah college students, who in recent years have appealed to state lawmakers and the Utah State Board of Regents about the need for more mental health services on state campuses.

“Every single person in any group conversation will have a personal story of some sort of how mental health difficulties have impacted lives. I know this is an issue that is on the minds of our students, and this gift will be very, very meaningful to them,” Watkins said.

Durham said eliminating the stigma surrounding mental illness and barriers to treatment will take “the whole community’s efforts.”

Mental illness affects every family at some point, she said.

“We’re either the one having our hand held or we are holding somebody else’s hand. We need to be to be better educated and know how we can deal with this crisis, especially in this state,” Durham said.

After careful study and thought, the Huntsman family felt strongly that it should support an initiative with the potential to save lives, increase access to care and enhance knowledge and treatment.

“We recognize we have a significant health crisis in our state and in our communities, when it comes to mental health and all of its forms, and it’s affecting all of our families,” David Huntsman said.

“Many that are suffering don’t have access to the care that they need. The decision by our family to make this gift is just a recognition that there’s so much to be done, and we need to do a better job and we need to start now.”


Marjorie Cortez

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