University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Wangkun Jia/shutterstock

University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Wangkun Jia/shutterstock

As often noted here on Inside Philanthropy, mental health doesn’t tend to attract the kind of big philanthropic gifts that often flow for medical research and hospitals. Data cited by Eliot Brenner in the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s confirms this thesis. While foundation funding earmarked for mental health research increased in absolute dollars from 2006 to 2015, it decreased as a percentage of foundation funding of healthcare, from 6.2 percent to 5.6 percent during the same period.

We see a similar phenomenon playing out across higher ed, where health donors tend to prefer big-ticket capital projects over less sexy mental health research initiatives. This is unfortunate. Back in May, NPR’s Terry Gross devoted an episode of Fresh Air to the growing mental health epidemic sweeping American colleges. Five months later, NBC reported that suicide is the second-most cause among college-aged students. “We are facing a national mental health crisis, and college campuses are reflecting what’s going on in society at large,” said Dr. Victor Schwartz, chief medical officer of the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to prevent suicides among young people.

News out of Utah provides hope that this crisis may finally get the attention it deserves from higher ed funders. The Huntsman family recently announced a $150 million gift to the University of Utah to fund a new institute focused on mental health care in Utah and beyond, with a specific focus on college students. The funding, pledged over 15 years, will support the University of Utah Health’s Department of Psychiatry and University Neuropsychiatric Institute, mental health services and screenings for students, and research aimed at 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. The university will rebrand the University Neuropsychiatric Institute as the Huntsman Mental Health Institute in recognition of the gift.

The gift represents a major pivot for a family staking out new terrain after the recent passing of its patriarch, Jon Huntsman, Sr., who donated over $1.4 billion to cancer research. “As a family, we are so excited to put a name and a face to mental health. And we need to stop the stigma. And I think every family deals with mental health,” said Christena Huntsman Durham, Huntsman Foundation vice chairwoman and executive vice president. “We have either held the hand of somebody, or had our hand held by somebody dealing with mental health.”

“Philanthropy Can Help Fill This Gap”

The larger context surrounding this gift should sound familiar to those attuned to philanthropy’s growing tendency to plug funding shortfalls as government steps back. A 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. The report found that over half of Utah adults with mental illness do not receive mental health treatment or counseling.

Speaking to the New York Times’ Paul Sullivan about his family’s gift, Jon’s son Peter R. Hunstman, who has assumed leadership of the family’s charitable arms, cited a study which ranked Utah last for adult mental health care among the states and the District of Columbia.

Utah, as you’d suspect, isn’t the only state providing insufficient funding for mental health services. In 2017, the nonprofit policy think thank Mental Illness Policy Org ranked all fifty states based on the percentage of state-controlled funds each state spends on mental illness. Utah came in at number 32.

The prognosis isn’t much better at the federal level. The largest funder of research in children’s mental health in the United States, the National Institute of Mental Health, decreased funding for child and adolescent services and intervention research by 42 percent from 2005 to 2015—$52 million to $30 million annually. “Philanthropy,” writes Eliot Brenner, “can help fill this gap by investing in new models of delivering care.”

Donors have stepped up, albeit gradually, across the past few years. Examples include the Cincinnati-based Linda and Harry Fath and Frances and S. Craig Lindner, actress Taraji P. Henson, and Steve and Alexandra Cohen, who have focused on veterans’ mental health care. We’ve seen comparatively less support for mental health initiatives targeting college students. One notable exception is financier Clifford Chiu, who, along with his wife Leigh made a big gift to the nonprofit healthcare system Ascension Seton to support mental healthcare initiatives for college students in Central Texas. “There’s a huge mental health crisis, and it’s under-researched,” Chiu told my colleague Ade Adeniji earlier this year.

As far as institutional funders are concerned, in July, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave $2.9 million to Say Yes Buffalo to launch a regional college success network that will include on-campus mental health clinics. And back in 2016, the Jed Foundation and the Steve Fund announced a joint plan to provide colleges and universities with recommended practices for improving support for the mental health and emotional well-being of America’s college students of color.

Forging the Next Philanthropic Legacy

Jon Huntsman Sr., who passed away last February, was the founder of the Huntsman Chemical Corporation, the largest manufacturer of polystyrene in the United States. He created the Huntsman Foundation in 1988, focusing on the areas of cancer research, programs at various universities, and aid to Armenia. Forbes pegged Huntsman’s net worth at $3 billion prior to his passing.

Huntsman was among the first billionaires to join the Giving Pledge in 2010, writing at the time that he had committed to giving away his entire fortune decades earlier, with cancer as a top priority.

Jon Sr. and his wife Karen established the Huntsman Mental Health Institute at the University of Utah in 1993 with a gift of $10 million. The Huntsman family gave the institute an additional $100 million in 1995. In November 2013, Huntsman donated or raised $120 million to the institute for the construction of a new research building dedicated to children’s cancer. In January, the Huntsman Foundation gave the institute $30 million in support of a planned expansion. 

David Huntsman, president and CEO of the Huntsman Foundation, said the family discussed the possibility of making a gift to help impact mental health in Utah, either nationally and internationally, for a couple of years before deciding “the best partner is in our own backyard.” Three generations of the family voted unanimously on the donation. As part of the grant agreement, the university will work with the family to raise additional funds to support the institute and to increase awareness about mental health. 

The family’s support for the Huntsman Mental Health Institute “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, who said he would consider the gift a success if people in Utah and the surrounding region looked to the new institute for care in the same way they do the cancer center.

Personal experience is almost always a factor in large mental health gifts, as we’ve explored before. For instance, MBI, Inc. founder Ted Stanley, whose son had struggled with mental illness, gave over $800 million to the Broad Institute for research in this area. We see the same dynamic at play with the Hunstman gift. “Each of us has dealt” with mental illness, Christena Huntsman Durham said. “We are just excited to be able to change the stigma and help people talk about it openly. No one really wants to put a face to mental health because of the stigma. That is something that we want to change.”

“Our parents have left a great legacy,” she said. “Our dad, his fight was against cancer. This next generation, we really want to attack and deal with mental health.”

Share with cohorts