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'It's imperative': National leaders in mental health join ranks in Utah to tackle stigma, disparities

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SALT LAKE CITY — The Huntsman Mental Health Institute and nearly 200 other organizations are gathering this week to establish a mental health network and discuss disparities.

The three-day Stop the Stigma Summit began Monday at Snowbird and is the first event of its kind. It features key stakeholders such as the American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health America and Rural Behavioral Health Institute.

"Not only is this gathering unusual, but It's historic," said David Huntsman, president and chief operating officer at the Huntsman Foundation. "In many ways, these are the movers and the shakers of the mental health world. They're aligning themselves in ways that they have never done before.

"We all know the silos don't work," he continued. "Now's the time to get together, and collectively we're going to do remarkable things. Now is the time to begin to end stigma, to change the way we think and talk about mental health, and to help bring relief to those people — because our suffering has gone on too long."

The summit features 175 representatives from hundreds of national organizations and aims to establish a common theme and understanding in messages surrounding mental health and substance use.

This week's summit has focused primarily on establishing a national network between the organizations and eliminating the stigma surrounding mental illness. The Stop the Stigma campaign will be a 10-year effort and collaboration between the many organizations, said Dr. Mark Rapaport, CEO at Huntsman Mental Health Institute.

"Mental health disorders are preventable or treatable, and they're often curable. But unfortunately, many do not get the care that they need because of the unnecessary stigma attached to it," said Kristin Kroeger, chief of policy, programs and partnerships at the American Psychiatric Association. "Let's stop the stigma together and work to change the narrative around mental health; it's imperative to creating a healthier and stronger society."

Now is the time to begin to end stigma, to change the way we think and talk about mental health, and to help bring relief to those people — because our suffering has gone on too long.

–David Huntsman, Huntsman Foundation

While these organizations across the nation have worked on addressing mental health and substance abuse issues for decades, the need for collaboration between platforms has become clear to many of them. The escalating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health, and the emerging call for more support has created an opportunity for that collaboration to occur on a large scale for the first time.

Mental illness and substance use disorders are common across America. Nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults lives with a mental illness, according to the National Mental Health Institute. Yet the severity and prevalence of those issues have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Nearly 31% of Americans reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, 13% reported having started or increased substance use, 26% reported stress-related symptoms, and 11% reported having serious thoughts of suicide in the past 30 days, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report in June 2020.

The pandemic elevated conversations surrounding mental health across all spheres. In 2021, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory to highlight the urgent need to help the youth mental health crisis nationwide.

"As the organization representing 133,000 psychologists across the country, we are in the trenches together in the middle of this mental health crisis," said Jared Skillings, chief of professional practice for the American Psychological Association. "It's incredibly important for us to look at how personally this hits and be able to acknowledge within ourselves how we can do work."

That personal connection and passion for the work of those present at the summit was evident.

"We know what that feels like to lose a loved one, and everyone in this room can share a story of how they've been affected by mental health. It's in every single home but we're too afraid to open our mouths and share our stories," said Christena Huntsman Durham, whose sister died nearly 15 years ago from an eating disorder and substance abuse disorder.

Among those stories was Gary Mendell's. He is the founder and CEO at Shatterproof, an organization that advocates for substance addiction recovery. Mendell's work began after the grieving father was left with questions following his son's suicide.

Mendell's son, Brian, developed an addiction to alcohol and drugs when he was in his late teens. Brian went through several treatment programs over the course of eight years before he overcame his addiction.

"He was 25 years old and he hadn't used a substance in 13 months. Equally tragic, it wasn't just addiction — it took my son's life," said Mendell.

After reading his son's suicide note on his computer, the father began traveling and researching substance abuse disorders. He met with several organizations and researchers and learned that stigma was a large barrier to addressing those disorders.

"There's no question of 'how' we describe those with this disease or relapses — or any aspect of it — will change the way that people view this disease," said Mendell.

While addressing the stigma of mental health and substance use disorders is the primary objective of the Stop the Stigma Summit, discussions expanded into increasing access to care.

"We will never be OK with not being able to get access to care. We're not OK with putting the mental health paradigm exclusively in a treatment box. The only way you can get mental health treatment is if you have a diagnosed condition," said Skillings. "We need to look upstream and think about how can we think about prevention efforts, early intervention, and look at connecting community groups."

For more information regarding the Stop the Stigma campaign and summit, visit the Huntsman Mental Health Institute website.


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Ashley Fredde covers human services and and women's issues for She also enjoys reporting on arts, culture and entertainment news. She's a graduate of the University of Arizona.


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