A new psychiatric treatment center for children and teens with serious mental illness has opened its doors in Duluth, the first of several such facilities designed to fill a critical gap in the state’s mental health system.

Located on a sprawling hilltop campus overlooking the Duluth harbor, the 48-bed treatment center will serve a population of young people who routinely fall through the cracks of Minnesota’s mental health system. It is part of a broader effort by Gov. Mark Dayton and local officials to address a severe shortage of treatment options for children and adolescents, particularly those who live in outstate Minnesota.

Mental health workers and parents say that across the state, children requiring intensive treatment for psychiatric problems cycle in and out of hospital emergency rooms without receiving adequate care, or wait months for placement in treatment centers, because of a severe shortage of appropriate care. Hundreds of families have been forced to go out of state each year for residential treatment because beds are not available in Minnesota for their children.

The number of emergency room visits for children facing mental health crises has more than doubled over the past decade, to nearly 20,000 in 2016, according to a study last year by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Minnesota. Over the same period, the number of residential beds available for children with mental health conditions has shrunk by close to half, because of funding pressures and the difficulties of serving such a population.

“This is filling a critical gap in our continuum of care, and it is filling that gap in the most beautiful, therapeutic environment I can imagine,” said Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper, who spoke Friday at the center’s official opening. “It’s a key step to making sure that kids with mental health needs don’t end up in the hospital, and they are served in a way that prevents a crisis.”

In the past, parents of children with serious mental health problems had to choose between hospital psychiatric units that are designed to stabilize a child during a crisis, and a small number of treatment centers that seek to keep children safe but mostly lack intensive therapy by psychiatric professionals. Families seeking more intensive, longer-term care often have to send their children to centers out of state. Statewide, roughly 300 children go out of state every year to receive residential psychiatric care, according to NAMI Minnesota.

The new centers, known as psychiatric residential treatment facilities, were created through legislation in 2015 and chart new territory: They provide more intensive services than other services currently available in the state, but they are less medically intensive than a psychiatric hospital. Unlike other facilities, the centers will provide 24-hour nursing care and deliver therapy under the direction of a physician. Only children and adolescents who have exhausted all other community-based mental health services can be admitted, according to the state rules.

The new center in Duluth cost $1.25 million and will be operated by the nonprofit Northwood Children’s Services. It is the first of three facilities planned in the next two years that will have a total of 150 beds and will provide a new level of care for children with serious mental health problems.

Executives at Northwood Children’s Services said they sought to avoid an institutional atmosphere and tried to make the center feel more like a therapeutic treatment community than a hospital. The 62-acre campus includes large soccer fields, a four-story climbing wall, greenhouse, a trout stream that cuts through the property, and a giant deck overlooking the Duluth harbor.

The children, many of whom have experienced traumatic episodes and will be living away from their families, will engage in a range of recreational activities, from horseback riding to archery, designed to improve their strength and self esteem while helping them develop new ways to cope with anxiety and depression, said officials with the nonprofit. There are two-bedroom apartments for parents to stay free of charge when they visit their children.

“It feels in a thousand different ways like it’s a great place to be,” Piper said, after a tour of the campus.

Each child is assigned an individual mental health therapist and will receive individual therapy at least twice per week, as well as group and family therapy as needed. It is expected that children will stay an average of six to nine months, depending on the severity of their condition.

“We’re not going to sit around in white lab coats and dispense meds and wait for kids to get better,” said Richard Wolleat, president and chief executive of Northwood. “We’re trying to teach new, more productive and effective ways for these children to cope and to exist in the world.”

Two other psychiatric residential treatment centers for children are already on the drawing board. Last month, the Hills Youth and Family Services, a Duluth-based nonprofit, announced plans to build a new 60-bed facility in East Bethel, which is expected to open in the fall of 2019. The nonprofit had initially sought to develop the project in Forest Lake, but despite widespread community support, the Forest Lake City Council nixed the project this spring. A third treatment center is planned for Fergus Falls, at a location to be determined.

“It was an enormous risk for Northwood to take this on … and develop a brand-new service for the state of Minnesota,” Piper said. “We are really grateful.”