Children's Minnesota unveiled its new child and adolescent mental health unit Thursday, its response to the mental health crisis that has affected children throughout the state in recent years.

The new unit in downtown St. Paul has been in development for four years, but the recent $97.2 million state mental health reform bill allowed the hospital to add even more to the space, including beds for parents to stay in rooms with their child. The unit will open in a few weeks and is designed for children and adolescents from ages 6 to 18.

"To all the families out there whose children are struggling with their mental health ... to all of these families I say, have hope," Sue Abderholden, executive director of NAMI Minnesota, said at the event Thursday celebrating the new facility. "Hope that this new unit at Children's will be able to treat your child and alleviate their symptoms so that they can simply be children."

The number of children experiencing mental health crises has risen dramatically in the past few years. Hospitals and treatment facilities in Minnesota are often at capacity, and earlier this year M Health Fairview Masonic Children's Hospital had to turn an ambulance bay into a makeshift unit. The new unit is expected to serve about 1,000 children per year.

In adolescent mental health treatment, there are varying levels of care depending on what a patient needs at any given time, doctors at the event explained. As children recover or need their level of care increased, they are often moved to different facilities and programs.

Now children who are admitted for mental health crises will be able to stay within the Children's system to have an inpatient care program on-site. Dr. Joel Spalding, who specializes in pediatric psychiatry at Children's, says this new unit will change mental health treatment at the hospital "drastically."

"Primarily ... our emergency rooms have managed the mental health patients," Spalding said. "As soon as they're medically stable we've been looking to other systems for those beds."

That means doctors sometimes have to communicate a child's needs across two or more systems to make sure they are getting the right care at each level of treatment.

"What we've been able to see is that there is at least a 25% rate of failure at each of those junctures," said Dr. Gigi Chawla, chief of general pediatrics at Children's. "If you make a referral, there's a 25% chance it won't happen the way that you wanted."

Chawla said part of the goal is to reduce the number of children who fail to properly transition to new levels of care. Children's already has a partial hospitalization facility in Lakeville and will open another in Roseville early next year.

The new unit, with colorfully painted walls, play therapy and quiet rooms, is designed with safety in mind. Each of the 22 patient rooms is also equipped with an advanced lighting system that changes the temperature and intensity of the artificial lighting.

Chawla said the lights, along with large windows in each room, can be helpful for those with mental illness, especially those with seasonal affective disorder.

Each room has two beds despite being designed as individual rooms. That is so parents can stay in the unit with their child if that is an appropriate part of the treatment.

"It's a family-centered model," said Pat Vitale, director of ambulatory specialty care at Children's. "We need to help families also be able to understand what they can do to support their child. Like with any other illness."

Where to find help

Families can find mental health information and resources for crisis care on NAMI Minnesota's website,

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Text Line counselor.