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Sponsored: Christena Huntsman is redefining the conversation on mental wellness advocacy

This article originally appeared in Modern Day Utah Pioneers, a publication sponsored by Clarke Capital.

n November 2019—just weeks before a virus and mental health pandemic spanned the globe—the Huntsman family pledged $150 million to a mental health institute in partnership with the University of Utah. 

It was the largest donation ever given to fund mental health initiatives. It went largely unnoticed. 

“We know what to do for people diagnosed with cancer. We have prayer circles, we make bracelets and we bring meals,” says Christena Huntsman Durham. “But when a family has a child who attempts suicide, the neighbors are quiet. The stigma is so great—and we experienced that same stigma when we gave the gift. People didn’t know how to talk about mental health. They didn’t know what to do with the headline about our donation.”

The Huntsman family members have gone through their own journey of learning how to talk about mental health. Thirteen years ago, Durham lost her sister to a drug overdose. At that time, the Huntsman family wasn’t ready to talk about what led to the death of this young mother of eight who had battled mental health issues since high school. The obituary and the funeral speeches did not address her stigmatized journey of substance abuse, mental challenges and unsuccessful rehab.

However, the famous and philanthropic family was comfortable talking about and providing funding for cancer. In fact, the name “Huntsman” is synonymous with the word “cancer” in Utah and beyond. Three decades ago—before the Huntsman Cancer Institute was created—Jon Huntsman, Sr., faced his own diagnosis and surgery.

“My father wanted to relieve the suffering for so many,” Durham says. “We watched him donate to multiple causes, and we saw him build the cancer foundation with passion, determination and even frustration. Before he passed, he said to all of his children, ‘Find your “cancer”—find your passion and your mission.’”

Although the eight living siblings run the gamut when it comes to politics and religion, they all share a love for each other and making the world a better place. As they talked about carrying on the legacy of generosity and solutions, the Huntsman siblings began discussing their personal realities and diagnoses.

“For the first time, some of us began to share what we had gone through with our kids and grandkids when it comes to mental health,” Durham says. “We had been reluctant to share what we had all experienced. As we looked at the empty chair left by my sister, we realized it had been a missed opportunity. We needed to let people know that our family has faced mental health challenges, and we also wanted to step up to address the epidemic. It was time for us to start talking about mental health, and I was at a place in my life where I could make this cause a top priority.”

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