NORFOLK — State, local and mental health officials – led by Gov. Ralph Northam – broke ground Tuesday on a $224 million hospital to treat children and teenagers who suffer from mental illness. It’s a population that now struggles to find services across Virginia because of a dearth of such facilities.

Some 600 people applauded during the formal ceremony at a canopied site near Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters, the not-for-profit entity building the new center. 

The most grateful folks, though, are the parents and children desperately seeking help in the commonwealth; currently, some have to leave the state just to get mental-health services. 

Among the target population: young people fighting eating disorders, those living with autism and others coping with chronic medical and “co-occurring” mental illness. 

They’re youngsters like 9-year-old Julian Garcia. He suffers from glycogen storage disease, a rare genetic disorder that affects his muscles and liver. Julian has endured biopsies and surgeries. His food and diet have to be strictly monitored, and eventually he’ll need a liver transplant.

Isabel and Ricardo Garcia, of Chesapeake, are Julian’s parents. Isabel Garcia says her son has been fighting anxiety and depression, and he’s had behavioral therapy at CHKD for more than two years. She said their biggest hurdle is the GSD illness, but she also welcomes the mental-health benefits the new center will provide.

Julian Garcia, 9, and his mother, Isabel, say Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters has helped treat his depression as he also copes with a genetic disorder. A new, 60-bed hospital will allow more children around Virginia to receive mental-health care. (Roger Chesley/ For the Virginia Mercury)

“I know this hospital will be something huge,” she said. “There are so many kids out there” seeking stability.

Emma Brookover, 14, was upbeat Tuesday – but that hasn’t always been the case. The Virginia Beach teen used to worry when she wasn’t near her parents. Emma went through periods where she “didn’t want to leave her bedroom,” said her father, Jamie Brookover. 

The girl, who fights anxiety and depression, even floated the notion that death would be better, Jamie Brookover said. She then got help through a CHKD therapist. Emma has now become a cheerleader and can speak to large crowds. 

“As a parent,” he added, “I don’t know where we would be” without the hospital’s help.

Similar stories are why CHKD has undertaken the 60-bed project. Right now, only one state psychiatric facility – the Commonwealth Center for Children and Adolescents in Staunton – accepts children. It has 48 beds. The Staunton site has been accepting more children and teens through temporary detention orders than ever before.

“Most of the things we’ve done over the years, parents have asked us to help,” said Jim Dahling, CHKD’s president and CEO. “This is no different.”

Assessments of community health needs that CHKD undertook in 2013, 2016 and this year found that mental-health care was among the top for children. Since 2014, hospital officials said, CHKD has been increasing its number of psychiatrists, psychologists and mental health clinicians to meet the rising need for mental-health services.

The hospital also saw a 300 percent increase in the number of outpatient therapy visits and mental health consultations in recent years, from 3,425 in fiscal year 2015 to more than 14,000 in fiscal year 2018.

The new 14-story building will rise on a campus that includes Sentara Norfolk General Hospital and Eastern Virginia Medical School, Northam’s medical alma mater. The new hospital is scheduled to open in 2022. 

It will feature an outdoor recreation area, indoor gym, music room and recording studio, and a rooftop garden. Officials will use research-based treatments and academic training programs for people studying to be child psychiatrists. 

To pay for the new hospital, CHKD will solicit the larger community, philanthropic organizations and government officials. It’s hoping the state also will contribute.

John Lawson II, chair of the Lighting the Way Campaign, said Tuesday the effort has already raised more than $10 million. 

“The King’s Daughters (the foundation that formed CHKD) have pledged $3 million, Langley Federal Credit Union has pledged $1 million and a dozen families and philanthropists have pledged between $100,000 and $1.5 million,” Lawson said.

Officials say they’ll be able to admit 2,500 patients annually and treat 5,600 through outpatient therapy. 

Among those who addressed the crowd Tuesday were Eric and Michelle Peterson. Their daughter, Sarah, committed suicide at the age of 15 in 2014. The Maury High School student ran track, painted and enjoyed camping and swimming. But she also battled depression. 

Her parents later started a foundation in her name

Eric Peterson said the hospital will help significantly because it will be a place where children can be safe as they recover. 

“Imagine a world without suicide,” he said. “We can get there.”

UPDATE: This story has been edited to update the size of the estimated crowd on hand.