$110 million mental health center for youths breaks ground in


OMAHA — After a young teen attempting suicide received emergency medical attention recently at Children’s Hospital, the attending health care team knew he was still at risk.

But when they sought to have the boy transferred to a mental health facility for more intensive psychiatric care, they could find no open beds nearby. 

He was sent to a place several hours away, Chanda Chacón, CEO of Children’s Hospital & Medical Center, recalled on Friday.

Bird’s-eye view of Children’s Hospital & Medical Center, with planned pediatric mental health center pictured to the left in white. (Courtesy Kiewit and HDR)

“This is a burden for families, many of whom often can not accompany their children out of state,” said Chacón. 

That availability is expected to change with the planned $110 million Behavioral Health & Wellness Center at the Children’s Hospital campus at 84th Street and West Dodge Road. 

Eating disorders and other therapy

An official groundbreaking was held Friday for the pediatric mental health center set to bring 38 in-patient beds — an amount supporters said more than doubles the area’s capacity.

Also Friday, the first architectural renderings were revealed of the 107,250-square-foot, four-story structure expected to open in early 2026.

Among features: a special “experiential” kitchen for youth and families dealing with eating disorders; 14,000 square feet of space for general outpatient therapy; and a crisis screening and stabilization assessment hub that organizers said will be the “first of its kind” regionally.

The array of services, set to rise on a seven-acre lot just west of the main hospital, will help meet what organizers described as an “urgent” need, as suicide and related mental health problems have climbed, especially since the pandemic.

Chanda Chacón, president and CEO of Children’s, in forefront of seven-acre site where the new youth mental health facility will rise. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Funded in part by federal dollars earmarked by the Nebraska Legislature, the center stands out also for the continuum of services, medical care and follow-up mental health services that youths will be able to get co-located at the same campus.

“Just imagine the improved access to care for families,” said Chacón.

The effort was led by the Mental Health Innovation Foundation and its president, philanthropist Ken Stinson. At the event, Stinson spoke of the “sobering trend” and “alarming” rise of suicide among young people, which he said is fueled by proliferation of social media.

Social isolation and anxiety of the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated mental illness scares, Stinson said. Consider these statistics from the Children’s Hospital Association and Centers for Disease Control:

  • Mental health-related emergency room visits between March and October of 2020 jumped 24% among ages 5 to 11 and 31% among those 12 to 17.
  • In the first three quarters of 2021, children’s hospitals across the country reported emergency room visits for self-injury and suicide attempts in kids up to 18 years at a 42% higher rate than during the same period in 2019.
  • Suicide was the second leading cause of death, nationally, for youths ages 10 to 14 in 2021. “Here in Nebraska our statistics are not on the right side of that trend,” added Stinson.

Stinson noted an advisory issued earlier this year by U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, calling attention to a public health “crisis” and “epidemic” of loneliness, isolation and lack of social connection in the country.

Given health consequences, Murthy called for public policymakers to enact strategies encouraging social connection.

Rise in police calls 

Tom Warren, chief of staff speaking for Mayor Jean Stothert, underscored the demand for services with statistics from the Omaha Police Department.

Warren said OPD in 2022 responded to 7,700 emergency calls for service from people reporting a mental health crisis.

In the first five months of this year, he said, OPD already has responded to nearly 5,000 mental health calls.

“Today is a hopeful day,” he said.

At groundbreaking of planned $110 million Children’s Hospital mental health center Friday, renderings are unveiled. At podium is Ken Stinson, a philanthropist leading the effort (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

City Council members Pete Festersen, Danny Begley and Brinker Harding were present at the event, which also drew Omaha State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan and U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer.

As planned, the complex will rise on the site of the recently demolished Nebraska Methodist College. The nonprofit foundation chose Kiewit Building Group as design-builder, which is to partner with HDR.

In addition to private donors, funding sources include $16 million earmarked by the Legislature from $40 million it set aside in 2022 for mental health projects across the state.

Another $15 million is to come from Children’s, which will operate the center and hire additional mental health care practitioners of all levels, Chacón said.

The health care community has started collaborating with partners to grow that workforce — including educational institutions, many of which were represented at the groundbreaking.

”We’re confident that this facility will help us attract the best and the brightest to Omaha to be part of that compassionate connected community we all see here today,” Chacón said.

Mental health has been a focus of Stinson’s for years, officials of the Nebraska Department of Economic Development noted in a recent media release. Stinson and Rhonda Hawks were among a group that raised funds to launch Omaha’s Lasting Hope Recovery Center in 2008.

The DED said mental health often has been stigmatized and often misunderstood.

Chacón described as shocking and scary the rise of youth mental illness and suicide attempts and said the new center is “catching up to the need.”

“It cannot come soon enough,” she said.

The planned pediatric mental health facility to rise on the Children’s Hospital campus will span 107,250 square feet. This evening rendering is a view of the front entrance of the “Behavioral Health & Wellness Center” with the perspective of someone walking into the building. (Courtesy of Kiewit and HDR)