By Keller Northcutt
Many of Colorado’s rural communities have limited access to mental health services. This San Luis Valley entrepreneur hopes to change that.
Jessica Chacon believes in the Frog Spirit of the San Luis Valley. According to the legend, when a person moves to the valley, the Frog Spirit enters them. If they ever leave and are later drawn back to the valley, they will become healers in the community. So, it came as no surprise, that when Chacon returned to Alamosa for the third time, she found a small, ceramic frog waiting in her new wellness space, Sweetgrass Therapeutics.
She is a leader, an entrepreneur, a mother, a yogi, and a teacher. Most of all, she is improving access and removing stereotypes around mental health services in her rural Colorado community.
The growing demand for mental health services in Colorado has far surpassed the number of available providers. Therapists around the state have lengthy wait lists, and due to a lack of workers entering the workforce, many people are not getting the help they need. According to an article in the Colorado Sun, the Jefferson Center, which serves Jefferson, Gilpin and Clear Creek Counties, estimates that “13,500 patients didn’t get an appointment” last year. Another recent study by Mental Health America found Colorado’s adults to have the highest rate of mental illness and lowest access to care than any other state in the country.
Chacon first moved to Alamosa for college at Adam’s State University, the first generation in her family to attend college. She returned to her hometown in Denver after school and took an incident management position that allowed her to work at Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche games, as well as at Red Rocks shows.
“It was a dream job, but I always felt called back to the San Luis Valley,” said Chacon.
So, she and her daughter moved back to Alamosa, where she began waiting tables. Eventually Chacon began to suffer from crippling sciatica. During one restless night’s sleep, she had a dream about attending yoga teacher training. She awoke and started looking for schools at 2am, stumbling upon the Frog Lotus Yoga International teacher training program in Indonesia. The Frog was guiding her, yet again.
When she returned from her training, Chacon earned a Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling in Alamosa and taught yoga while in school. She assisted in renovating the school recreation center to be more welcoming and calming, and would bring in acupuncturists and massage therapists to her classes to show students the importance of self-care.
“Many of the students were from a low-economic background, suffered from generational traumas, and had never experienced or had access to wellness programs,” she said.
Chacon later held a position with the San Luis Valley Behavioral Health Group as the Community Corrections Liaison at Advantage Treatment Center. She conducted intake assessments, one-on-one therapy, group therapy for women, and yoga classes for recovery. Unlike the regimented cognitive behavioral therapy that, as she said, “told clients to read a book, do their homework, and be sober,” she offered a more wholistic approach to healing and showed clients that they had the tools within themselves to heal and grow.
San Luis Valley Behavioral Health Group is Alamosa’s primary mental health provider, but many other towns in rural Colorado are unable to offer similar services. Out of Colorado’s 64 counties, a report by the Colorado Rural Health Center found that 22 of them lack a resident psychologist or psychiatrist. They also found that the rates of suicide are 62% higher in rural Colorado than urban areas, with rural youth twice as likely to die by suicide than urban youth. After working at the correctional facility for two years, Chacon decided it was time to open her own office space, and work with youth and those in recovery to help decrease this statistic.
Although there were few office spaces for rent, Chacon stumbled upon the perfect location right as it became available, and in June 2021 she officially opened her doors in downtown Alamosa. Chacon’s goal is to create a diverse wellness community that offers counseling, yoga, massage, acupuncture, reiki, and more all under one roof. She believes it is important to support other small business owners and entrepreneurs, as they are integral components of a healthy community.
Chacon is filling a serious need for mental health providers in rural Colorado. She recognizes the demand and is working hard to expand her network. Although she has a six-month waiting list for new clients, she has a few practitioners interested in relocating to Alamosa and joining her cooperative.
“I was called here to do this. It is more than just helping my community, I believe that the individual work we do as humans affects the generations both before and in front of us.”
Chacon also sits on numerous local boards to improve access to mental health services for youth and underserved populations. The only remaining challenge: how to get the Frog Spirit to bring mental health practitioners to other parts of the state.