Springwoods Behavioral Health sits just off a busy Fayetteville thoroughfare. Like almost everything in Northwest Arkansas, the place feels new, even though it’s been here for more than a decade. Around it, residents go about their daily lives, shopping for groceries at the local Sam’s Club or walking their dogs from a nearby residential neighborhood.
The low-slung, 80-bed building is larger than it looks from the parking lot and surrounded by grounds turned over to the hand of Mother Nature, giving the whole place a native kind of feel. But inside, the facility is state-of-the-art, and the staff is the best in the business. Polite to a fault, they are also sticklers for protocol and procedure, right down to the receptionist-controlled access doors that whoosh open like an airlock.
If you didn’t know better, you might mistake the place for a physical therapy practice or a 24-hour clinic, but there are subtle signs that’s not why people are here. Light fixtures, door handles, even the bathroom faucets are shaped differently — everything smoothed, rounded and behind locked doors. You feel more than see the electronic eyes on you, but they’re there, silently following the movement of staff, patient and visitor.
In his small office, Jordon Babcock, CEO, also follows the traffic in his building, as much by feel and instinct as by technology. He’s done every job there is to do in a facility like this, and the experience has left him with senses that can read a room like a map. Maybe a staffer’s body language tells him she’s having a bad day, maybe the tone of a conversation is just a half-octave too high, or maybe the air just doesn’t feel right. He reads people like a boiler gauge, watching the needle, adjusting accordingly.
It’s a skill that particularly comes in handy with patients, from nervous teens looking to corral their frightening thoughts to those in crisis, fighting to breathe through the grip of mental illness. So too with the families who are often here, shaken, weary, struggling to process what’s happening. Babcock knows them, too, not just for the training he’s received, but for what his own life has taught him. Behavioral illness isn’t just the patient’s cross to bear, he tells them, it seeps into jobs, relationships, families.
Some can’t believe it’s the CEO sitting across from them, leaning into their pain. Some cry, some nod numbly, some don’t register any emotion at all. But that’s not the point; their reaction, like their pain, is individual and must therefore play out differently for everyone, in its own time. He can’t fix what they are going through, even as their family member gets better. But it’s enough for them to know there are places to start that leads to brighter horizons.
“I see myself as hitting the location jackpot. I could have been placed anywhere in 400 company facilities across the globe, but I got to come here,” he says. “I plan on being a big part of this community for a long time.”
As much concern as Babcock has for those who are here for help, he’s more worried about the ones still out there, wandering in the fog of mental illness, thickened by stigma. It’s the stigma he hates the most, the unrelenting shame and embarrassment many people feel that keeps them from seeking help, forcing their demons into dark, combustible places, denying what’s wrong until it implodes their life and the lives of those around them. As long as that remains — and don’t let the headlines about wider acceptance of mental illness fool you, the stigma remains in spades — he’ll be here, lighting lanterns in the night.
“I plan on being able to continue to create positive patient experiences,” he says. “I know that every life we save here every day cascades into the quality of community that we have and changes more and more people’s opinions on what behavioral health is. I plan on living the rest of my days helping to change whether or not people are willing to turn to treatment in some way.”
Babcock took a winding path to his life’s work. The Chicagoland native grew up working in the family construction and landscaping business and originally attended college studying information technology. But the allure of the field faded with each passing semester, and he dropped out before graduating to go into business for himself, including a small home security company and dabbling in real estate. He did well, but something remained disconnected.
“I just put my keys on the desk one day and realized this wasn’t filling my cup up. I wasn’t being fulfilled by my career,” he says. “I decided to go back and pursue an education in psychology.”
Babcock kept his businesses running to pay the bills as he enrolled at Rockford University, at last engaged with coursework in a way he hadn’t been before. Then, about a year in, his phone rang. It was his aunt and what she told him changed his life.
“She called to tell me that my father was no longer with us,” he says, the light fading from his voice. “He took his life from carbon monoxide poisoning. Drank a lot of alcohol and kept the garage door closed and the car running.”
Babcock had encountered the aftershocks of mental illness before; as a teen, his cousin died by suicide, and another cousin struggled with addiction. But this was different; this shocked him to where remembering details is still fuzzy, like an accident survivor blocking out memories. Even today, the words swell his throat and drop thickly off his tongue, still angry at the environment that led his father to do the unthinkable.
“I lost my father to the stigma surrounding mental health treatment and behavioral health,” he says, his voice a whipcrack. “I believe that if it was as OK for someone who was struggling internally with wanting to take their life to seek treatment, as it would be with him hurting his knee, let’s say, he would have been in a hospital, and he’d be alive, and he’d be with us today. But it wasn’t OK. And it still isn’t.”
His father’s death sent him reeling for a time, giving him a chance to follow his own advice with therapy and proper grieving. After which, he attacked his studies with the ferocity of one who’s been there.
“When I went back to school after that, I was a student on fire,” he says. “I read every single book front to back. I was in the library looking at current research journal articles. I was really throwing myself at education at this point. I graduated very quickly with my four-year psych degree.”
Once he had it, he didn’t know what to do with it, so he focused on his existing businesses. Until one day he got a tip that a local behavioral health clinic was seeking part-timers. He landed a gig with a facility that served kids with rough backgrounds and even rougher life experiences. The stories were heartbreaking. The work was challenging. The pay was garbage. Babcock was in love.
“Keeping one of those kids safe for a shift who was normally a self-harmer or was aggressive, or helping a staff member get through a difficult shift, just doing that, whether or not I made $80 in an eight-hour shift, it really filled my cup up fully,” he says. “I kept my IT business going during the day and selling homes during the day and then worked second shift until midnight there. It was 16 hours a day, rinse, repeat. I really threw myself completely at it.”
Babcock submitted a program proposal that suggested rewarding good behavior with the incentive of a field day. It was accepted and, by the second month, a handful of kids had qualified for the kind of outing most youths take for granted.
“We went out to the park, and nobody fought. Nobody ran away. Everyone was good,” he says. “We went to the salon, and no one stole anything or lost anything. We went through the drive-thru. We were cranking up the tunes and singing, and it was like a movie. You couldn’t paint a better picture of a bunch of tough kids that had made it. Man, you want to talk about feeling good! I was on top of the world.”
Flying high, Babcock returned the group to the facility to be met in the parking lot by a somber-faced supervisor, who took possession of the youth and directed him inside to take a waiting phone call. Seated on a massive blue couch, he pressed a flashing button to connect to his stepfather, and his life again changed forever.
“He told me that I needed to sit down. And he said my mother was no longer with us. She died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound that day,” he says, choking on the memory.
“When I try to talk about the feeling, it’s this overwhelming burning sensation that runs through your body. I was in so much shock, and I just kept asking, ‘Where is she? Where did she go? What do you mean? Where is she?’ I couldn’t make sense of it. I couldn’t add it up.”
Behind the shock of the news was the sorrow of knowing — Babcock’s training had laid bare to him his mother’s struggles through the telltale signs that something wasn’t right. He’d begged her to get help, even arranging free services through his connections in the industry. But there was one demon he couldn’t wrestle out of her way, one claw he couldn’t extract fast enough to avoid devastating tragedy.
“She was paranoid that her church friends and her family would find her weak because she had to get that support, and she was going to be judged,” he says. “She wasn’t going to see a shrink. She wasn’t going to do those things because of the judgment and how society looks at this treatment, that it’s not equally as important as physical treatment, right? That it’s not OK to be not OK. But it is, and it’s OK to get help, too.”
Having walked the path of grief after his father’s death made the road familiar, but no less steep. More than once, he recalls looking in the mirror and asking himself of his own stability in the face of what he was dealing with, ultimately backing away from the lips of bottomless pools with the help of people around him. Professional therapy was bolstered by raw expressions of love and concern that fed him emotionally, spiritually and physically — texts from former professors, hugs from coworkers, massive pans of lasagna from neighbors.
Then one day, he saw with absolute clarity how he could make it all mean something more than just tragedy and sorrow.
“I knew I had to get back to doing what I did, but it was a different game for me now. I was a different person,” he says. “When I came out of that darkness, I knew I was going to wage a war on that stigma. I said it: ‘I’m going to run one of these treatment centers someday, and I’m going to make a difference out there.’”
At Springwoods, that’s exactly what’s happened. The hospital has been re-energized by its CEO, infused with purpose and invested with a mission that he casts for new staffers during orientation when he shares his story. In so doing, the most senseless losses of his life serve a new purpose, something positive. Something life-giving.
“I feel very humbled to be where I’m at. I know that I lost my parents and family members for some sort of reason,” he says. “It’s what guides me every day to continue to get out of bed and fight and advocate, knowing my pain and my story, my struggle, can turn into something positive. That’s what drives me to continue to fight against the current stigma; I’m going to make something out of this. I’m going to persevere.”