WEST PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — UnityPoint Health on Friday kicked off an initiative seeking to reshape the mental health landscape for teens and children in Central Illinois.

The Young Minds Project is raising funds for its new state-of-the-art Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Center in the former Heddington Oaks nursing home in West Peoria. It will be the first inpatient mental health center of its kind in the area.

“We are just so excited to kick off the public phase of an important campaign that’s going to be so impactful,” said Mike Unes, vice president of UnityPoint Central Illinois Foundation.

Unes said UnityPoint is the only area provider to offer mental health services to teens and children, but space is limited. They average 60 youth mental health admissions each month, and the new facility will increase their current bed capacity by 50%.

“It’s indescribable how big the need is. We reach our capacity often and its heartbreaking to see that families have to take their loved ones elsewhere just because their capacity is full in our area. That should never happen in Central Illinois, and the Young Minds Project is going to help fix that,” he said.

Mary Sparks-Thompson, president of UnityPlace, said the pandemic caused an increase in depression and suicidality, and substance use disorders in adolescents and children.

She said 17% of 10th grades in the Tri-County seriously considered suicide in the past year.

“What we’ve seen with the COVID-19 pandemic there’s been a reduction in the ability of our children and youth to have typical social interactions. They’ve been isolated, and not able to interact with their friends and family in the ways that we had been used to previously. So this along with some of the social unrest that’s occurred and just the general strife that we’ve seen in our communities has had a compounding impact,” she explained.

Thompson added social media has played a role too.

“Social media has had a negative consequence on children. So there’s a lot factors right now in our current culture and our society that are creating some external challenges for our children that we have not seen in previous generations,” she said.

State Sen. Dave Koehler (D-Peoria) said it’s a big deal for the community to play a larger role in mental health.

“This is a response that is going to … really put us in a good position as a community to be a leader in how we deal with behavioral health, mental health issues and especially with a focus on our youth. I’m just so excited about what this means,” he said.

Koehler added he and State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth (D-Peoria) championed and succeeded in their efforts to increase reimbursements for psychology rates.

“We can’t afford to have services that are not keeping up with the costs of providing the service, and so this helps to really give us a good future for mental health in Peoria,” he explained.

Unes said the new facility will not feel like a hospital, but a healing environment featuring art therapy, music therapies, and outdoor courtyard spaces

“A less institutionalized feel is going to help,” he said.

“We will design the facility primarily for safety and then we’ll be able to bring in aesthetic elements that enhance treatment. So natural light, ability to move within the facility. Most importantly for children the ability to get outside and exercise,” added Thompson.

Thompson said the Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Center will have everything under one roof to help keep kids in the community.

“It’s our goal with this project, that we would have a one-stop-shop for child and adolescent behavioral health services so that children and families can receive care and services close to home,” she said.

The Peoria County Board approved the sale of the former Heddington Oaks facility to UnityPoint on Thursday.

The project still has a long way to go, with an estimated budget of $24 million. UnityPoint hopes to raise $12 million from the community, according to Young Minds Project website.

Unes added a family has committed to matching donations up to $1 million.