State authority on pediatric behavioral healthcare hopeful for youth mental health progress in coming year


Boram Kim


The Medical Director of Pediatric Behavioral Health at the University of Utah (U of U) and Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital, Lisa Giles, MD, is optimistic about the progress to come around youth mental health and crisis in Utah. Speaking to State of Reform, she said the statewide focus on improving mental health offers a positive outlook on the coming year. 


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“Obviously, huge challenges from a need standpoint, but I get really enthusiastic and optimistic,” Giles said. “I feel like we are at a time though, where there’s lots of time and energy and talk about this, right. So I’ve been doing this for quite a while and I’m usually like, ‘Oh, mental health, remember me?’ but now we’re at a time where the stigma is greatly decreased. People are talking about [youth mental health], philanthropic dollars want to go to mental health needs, the legislature’s talking about it.

I really feel excited that we have this opportunity at this time to be like, yes, it’s a massive challenge at hand. There’s some good momentum around, ‘How are we going to rally and really make some differences and really help kids get and families get the treatment they need?’ I’m optimistic at the end of the day.”

Suicide remains the leading cause of death for young people aged 10-17 in Utah. The state ranks 32nd in the nation for overall youth mental health and 49th for youth with severe major depression. Utah also ranks the worst (51st) in terms of adult with serious thoughts of suicide and 43rd overall for mental health, indicating a high prevalance of mental illness and lower rates of access to care.

State reporting estimates the proportion of 3-17 year-olds in the state struggling with anxiety and depression at 13%. 

Utah hosted the National Governors Association convention in October where governors from eight states, experts, and community leaders gathered to discuss strengthening youth mental health. 

“Youth mental health is an urgent issue in Utah and nationwide,” said Gov. Spencer Cox during the conference in October. “The (COVID-19) pandemic has heightened the problem, and it’s important that we be proactive in bolstering support resources and letting young people know that help is available.”

Cox pledged his office would work on the practical measures and recommendations that came out of the meeting both on a state and national level that focus on prevention and screening, data utilization, and state innovations around payment and funding mechanisms. 

The Office of Families under the Division of Family Health was established in October and will pilot a program with school districts that aim to improve mental health and student outcomes through cell phone- free environments at schools. 

Cox said he would be working with legislators on developing policies that would require parental permission in the creation of accounts for minors on social media and hold social media companies more accountable.

Last month, two significant sources of private funding were announced that commit more funds to the state’s pediatric behavioral health system. 

The Huntsman Mental Health Institute (HMHI) received $7 million in public and private funds to expand mental health crisis services in Utah. Larry H. & Gail Miller Family Foundation and Salt Lake County, each committed $3.5 million to (HMHI) projects centered around crisis care, temporary inpatient services, case management, legal and mental health support services. 

Primary Promise, Intermountain Health’s $600 million philanthropic initiative to address children’s health in Utah and the Intermountain West, has raised more than $464 million through community donors. The money raised through the initiative will go to improve the state’s pediatric health system and prioritizes meeting the emerging children’s mental and behavioral health needs through expanded services and programs. 

Intermountain Health in partnership with the Utah Department of Health and Human Services is expanding the state’s in-person Stabilization Mobile Response (SMR) to Wasatch, Utah, and Juab counties, and other counties in the western region.

“A lot of what we do is just work with existing community services that can help provide those direct referrals and coordinate that care across as needed,” Giles said. “But then it’s also recognizing where are those areas of real need in our state and those need for growth.

Primary Children’s is building a second hospital down in Utah County, which again, is about 45 minutes to an hour south of Salt Lake, because that’s really where the population growth is in Utah right now. And that’s really where the need is. So as part of that children’s hospital, there will be a lot of dedication to behavioral health. There will be an inpatient psychiatric unit, a crisis assessment area as well as outpatient services and some intensive outpatient services.”

The University of Utah (U of U) Health has led the Utah School Mental Health Collaborative, a statewide program designed to help schools utilize their existing framework to provide mental health support and services. 

The collaboration with schools around assessment, education, and referrals for higher levels of care is just one example of how providers are partnering with the community to provide a behavioral health continuum of care. 

HMHI helped develop SafetUT, a mobile app that offers students 24/7 confidential access to mental health counselors via chat, call, or school safety tip submission. 

Started in 2015, the app has seen utilization increase over the years. More than 850,000 students currently have access to the app and suicide rates have remained stagnant since its introduction. Between July 2020 and June 2021, 6,274 tips were made through the app, 256 of which alerted authorities about threats or violence. 

SafeUT saw a 12% increase in demand for services in FY 2022 that is projected to grow to 15% in the coming year. The program is requesting $1.2 million in funding from the legislature for FY 2023 to meet those projections as well as cover structural debt and rising operational costs.