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Career Retrospective: Ross Van Vranken Reflects on 33 Years in Mental Health Care

I have never been very good at retiring. Plain and simple, it is hard to leave a position when you still love the work, the people, and the mission. 

One reason it is hard to retire is timing. Right now, we are at a crucial point for mental health care. So much change is underway, and I am still very curious about how it is all going to turn out. 

But my colleagues in the mental health community are the bigger reason I am reluctant to leave.

All About the People   

Mental health care is all about people. Our faculty and staff really are fantastic. I am going to miss working with them and being part of this organization.

Everything we accomplished during the last 33 years of my career is the result of excellent teamwork. The people in this organization are so invested in the work we do, and their enthusiasm shines through.

Our people lead with their values. They understand why we do what we do. They put our patients first and show a huge commitment to quality of care.

And that is how we’ve become a leader in consistency and quality in the Mountain West and beyond.

Developing talent is one of the University of Utah’s secrets to success—across the board. We are great at finding people, training them, and placing them in the right positions. We have great professional development opportunities. Our training programs for psychiatrists and post-doc psychology are outstanding examples.

Ross Van Vranken cardboard cutout
Ross Van Vranken passed up an opportunity to retire in 2016. Instead, he took an extended vacation abroad before returning to work. While he was away, a life-size cardboard cutout “filled in” for him. Pictured here with Youth Residential Treatment Program staff.

Promising to Put our Values First   

But it is bigger than just finding people. We worked to create a culture that nurtures kindness, integrity, and innovation. A place where people can voice their concerns and impact the organization for the better. I’m proud of that culture.   

Early on, we asked our staff how they wanted to be treated and what kind of people they wanted to work with. Their suggestions became the PROMISE standards. These are our commitments to how we operate as an organization.

Our Biggest Accomplishments   

Putting the right people in the right places has also produced some of our best ideas.   

I have seen a lot of change in three decades. When I started, we were a for-profit hospital. It was the first public-private partnership in the country. Today, the Huntsman Mental Health Institute encompasses patient care, research, education, and community collaboration on a local and national scale.   

All the while, our facilities and staff grew, and we became an exemplary mental health care organization—among the best in the nation.   

Another thing I am proud of is how courageous we were during that time. We tried new ideas and were not afraid to fail. That courage to innovate got us where we are today.   

Ross Van Vranken at HMHI Receiving Center reopening, 2023
Ross Van Vranken with Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, community members, and HMHI staff, at ribbon cutting ceremony for reopening of HMHI Receiving Center after renovation, October 2023.

It is hard to list all the excellent programs we have produced over the last three decades. To name a few: 

  • 24-hour receiving centers are an asset for stabilizing people in times of crisis, whenever they need us. These centers allow patients to avoid the ER or, in some cases, jail. 
  • The 988 Suicide Prevention and Crisis Lifeline started at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute. We consolidated 21 crisis lines into a single, unified number. Today, it is nationwide and includes a network of clinicians that can send crisis teams to help people in times of need. 
  • The SafeUT app has 850,000 users and is actively preventing suicide, school attacks, and bullying for students, frontline workers, and the Utah National Guard. 
  • Established 23 year ago, the Neurobehavioral HOME Program is now a national model for coordinated medical and mental health care for people with complex developmental disabilities. 
  • The Comprehensive Assessment and Treatment (CAT) Program serves youth and young adult patients from around the country. 
  • Day treatment programs like the Intensive Outpatient Clinic are a complementary way of approaching mental health care. 

I’m proud of how these programs are serving communities across Utah and the region.

Ross Van Vranaken at 988 lifeline press conference
Ross Van Vranaken speaking at 988 Lifeline First Anniversary press conference, July 2023.

An Ongoing Crisis

In the last 30 years, the thing that changed the mental health landscape the most was the COVID-19 pandemic.   

We saw new challenges—even with small details like trying to provide talk therapy with masks on. We saw huge increases in demand for care, coupled with a sudden lack of workforce. Burnout was a huge challenge for us, and we have been working since then to build our staff back to where it was.   

We also saw patient acuity skyrocket. The people we treat are sicker. They have more complex needs, which are often harder to see. Their symptoms are more resistant to treatment. Interactions are more tense and challenging to manage.   

This has been an ongoing challenge for our staff. It echoes the importance of finding people who can put themselves aside and focus on the care of others. Effective training and creating space where people can learn how to improve their work is crucial in combatting this problem.   

Even though COVID-19 is no longer a daily part of life, none of these issues are over for us.   

But the pandemic was also a springboard for new approaches. We saw the rise of telehealth, which has increased access to mental health care exponentially. People can get help more easily.

Battling Underlying Issues   

The biggest battle we are currently fighting is against stigma. In the modern world, mental health disorders are on par with cancer in terms of impact on peoples’ lives. Depression is now considered the leading cause of disability worldwide.   

The situation with high-deductible insurance makes things worse. There is a greater need than ever for effective, affordable care. To help people, we need to convince the world that this is crucial to saving lives.   

In 2022, HMHI started the Stop Stigma Campaign. This is an eight- to ten-year public awareness campaign to normalize the need for mental health care.   

Our goal is to break down the societal barriers—cost, lack of access, drastically underpaid providers—that keep people from getting the treatment they need.

The Future of Mental Health

Ross Van Vranken volunteering at Utah Food Bank.
Ross Van Vranken and colleagues volunteering at the Utah Food Bank.

I foresee a lot of challenges in the next few years. But I’m enthusiastic about the future. We need to stay focused on trying to change mental health care in the U.S.—both how it is delivered and how it is paid for. 

We have a lot of momentum right now. COVID-19 showed the world how much our services matter. We need to keep up the tempo and push for wholesale change. We need new tools, new therapies, new medications, and more research. 

Most of all, we need to continue leading with our values. Psychiatry starts and ends with people. I’m confident that our faculty and staff will continue being exceptional leaders as they meet these challenges. 

I'm proud to have served this organization for 33 years. And I’m proud of the way we have maneuvered obstacles and embraced innovation. Our track record for quality and consistency are exemplary. After I leave, I look forward to seeing how we continue to change the mental health landscape.

Ross Van Vranken, MSW

Ross Van Vranken, MSW

Ross Van Vranken has served as executive director for the Huntsman Mental Health Institute (HMHI), formerly UNI, at University of Utah Health since 1991. Van Vranken oversees integration between clinical care, education, and research. He ensures HMHI/U of U Health’s standing as a community leader in behavioral health. He actively participles in clinical and service delivery at regional and national levels. He co-chairs the Behavioral Health Committee for the Utah Hospital Association and chairs Utah’s Mental Health Crisis Response Commission. Van Vranken received an undergraduate degree in psychology and a master’s degree in social work at the University of Utah.  

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