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This farmer is taking rural America's mental health crisis into his own hands

Once suicidal himself, he's now trying to get his fellow farmers to open up about their struggles

by Mark Scialla, Mary Grace Lucas, and Evan McMorris-Santoro
Aug 16 2018, 5:00pm

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

The house burned to the ground, and Ditzenberger 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 respond.

Ditzenberger tried to go 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.’”

Between declining incomes over recent years and the uncertainties of weather and tariffs, farmers are increasingly stressed and suffering mental health issues. Rural counties have the highest rates of suicide in the country, according to a Centers for Disease Control study published in July, which continues a trend of the past few years.

But quality mental health care is relatively scarce 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.

Ditzenberger decided to try to do his small part to fix that shortfall, starting a support group in 2015 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.

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

This segment originally aired August 8, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.