Rural America Is Having A Mental Health Crisis, This Farmer Is Fighting It

One night in 1992, farmer Jeff Ditzenberger walked into an abandoned house near his farm in Monroe, Wisconsin and lit it on fire. He had no intention of walking out alive. But as the walls caught fire around him, he changed his mind. And he walked out.

The house burned to the ground, and Jeff served nine months in jail for arson. He also got help for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

When Ditzenberger reflected on what drove him to attempt suicide, he said it was in part because he had no one to talk to in his rural farming community about his problems. People he approached either didn’t care or didn’t know how to talk to respond.

Ditzenberger tried talking to a therapist but found it difficult to get an appointment.

“It was the same thing every time I called,” he said. “‘Well, we can get you in in a few weeks. ’Well, I can’t wait a few weeks. I need to get in now.’”

Lack of access to quality mental health care is a problem in rural communities across the U.S. In a 2018 Ball State University survey of rural mental health professionals, 95 percent said they can’t meet the needs in their communities.

In 2015, Ditzenberger started a support group called Talking, Understanding, Growth and Support — or TUGS — to informally get farmers and other rural people together to talk. Ditzenberger hopes it can help overcome what he says is a stigma around talking about mental health among farmers.

It couldn’t come at a better time. Rural counties have the highest rates of suicide in the country, according to a Centers for Disease Control study published in July.

VICE News got a chance to meet Ditzenberger and some of the farmers he who say he’s helped them open up about their mental health struggles.

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