DAYTON, Ohio (WDTN) – Tuesday, Governor DeWine allocated $84 million to children’s behavioral health services as part of the state’s federal pandemic relief money. And a Miami Valley leader played a critical role in securing that funding.

Advocates say the demand for pediatric behavioral health services exceeded capacity even before the pandemic, then reached emergency levels over the last year. They add this funding won’t eradicate the problem, but it will make a major difference.

Dayton Children’s Hospital President & CEO Debbie Feldman says, “We have young people in our community that think there’s no reason to live. It’s just heartbreaking.”

Feldman says there have been increases in suicides and suicide attempts among young people. 14% have a suicide plan, about half of them actually try to carry it out.

Dayton Children’s Hospital first tried to address the concerning trends by expanding existing inpatient and crisis services. Feldman says, “But it’s just not enough.”

She says this money will help weave together the services in a comprehensive way. An intensive planning process is already underway, they hope to finish in the fall. Feldman says, “How do we use these funds to maximize the benefit of the investments we’ve already made, and where do we need to add investments in order to try to provide more of a continuum of services for the children in the Dayton region.”

And it’s clear when Feldman has something to say, people listen. Governor DeWine explained, “I got a call from Debbie Feldman of Dayton Children’s Hospital, one Sunday and she says I have an idea.”

Nick Lashutka, the President & CEO of the Ohio Children’s Hospital Association, says, “We all do what Debbie Feldman says.”

So the state board worked on a proposal that would address access problems and workforce shortages. Lashutka says, “This bill, by signing today, is going to provide a huge investment in both the inpatient and outpatient centers, from an infrastructure and capital standpoint.”

Feldman does think even more money will be needed in the future, but the programs have to start as soon as possible. “The reality is the educational and mental health impact of COVID is going to be felt by our children for years to come. And so we as a community need to be there for them, provide the services that are needed to overcome.”

The Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services will be in charge of the $84 million program. Debbie Feldman hopes next year’s allocation builds on this year’s foundation.