Advice from a farmer who’s been through it all

by Courtney Llewellyn

“When we talk about tough situations, the conversation about suicide and mental health is tough, but it’s even harder to have that conversation when you lose someone.” That’s how farmer Jeff “Ditz” Ditzenberger began his presentation during a recent Rural Mental Health Connections webinar, hosted by the National Grange.

The webinar series is sponsored by Rural Minds, a nonprofit, and the National Grange, which both have missions of education, impacting people and their communities in positive ways and giving people an opportunity to grow.

Ditz grew up on small dairy farm in Wisconsin. After high school, he joined the military, and throughout boot camp in the summer of 1988 he said numerous times that he wished he was back on the farm. He married his high school sweetheart – but they only spent 32 days together in their first year of marriage. Ditz spent almost a full year on his Navy ship – a refueling ship, on which the potential for disaster caused him high anxiety.

“I came back to work at a cheese plant that wasn’t entirely above board, which was also anxiety inducing,” he explained. “I was also working for a local farmer at the time and was having some problems in my marriage. I started drinking heavily. I asked my friends if I could talk and was generally met with ‘suck it up, buttercup.’”

He noted that many are taught to sequester those “bad” emotions, and that bothers him. He tried to see a therapist on the sly – and then found out his wife was cheating on him. That’s when Ditz started to plot his suicide. “I presented the classic signs we know about today, but no one talked about them then,” he said.

Advice from a farmer who’s been through it all

Jeff “Ditz” Ditzenberger

One night, during this low point of his life, he thought his volunteer fire department pager went off and it triggered something in his brain. “Triggers are real,” he stated. “They happen, and they can affect us in really, really negative ways.” There was no fire department call, but Ditz ended up going to an abandoned house and lit it on fire. That’s how he planned to end his life. However, he wrote his suicide note on a piece of paper that was in his pocket – and he realized his message wasn’t going to get out. “Then I thought ‘Why am I in a burning building?’” He left, went to a neighbor’s house and called 911.

One of the firefighters noticed something wasn’t quite right when they showed up. Ditz, though, just went to milk the next morning, but then was fired from his farm job. He was called to the fire department to talk to a detective, and they knew he started the fire. “He said I could be arrested or go to a mental ward,” Ditz said. “One of the first good choices I made in my life was going to the mental ward. There’s no judgment there. I was allowed to talk about my feelings.” Ultimately, he was charged with felony arson – but he never told anyone about his suicide attempt at the time. He was less embarrassed to say he had a felony than he tried to commit suicide.

Years later, the Farm Bureau asked Ditz to write a blog about farmers and mental health. “I was mostly talking about men’s feelings; in rural America, we don’t have a lot of access to mental health help,” he said. “I thought, now we’re finally gonna start having a conversation – and it went viral.”

But Ditz wanted to do more. He gave a speech, starting by talking about his Navy career and thinking about the tug boat. He thought, “Why couldn’t life be like that? Having something when you need something to guide you through treacherous waters or tight spaces.” He wanted to start a nonprofit, with the idea that even big ships need little ships sometimes. That’s how TUGS (Talking, Understanding, Growing and Supporting) came about. Veterans, firefighters, police and social workers were all on board; Ditz handles talking to farmers and rural Americans, because their language is so different.

“We help you find someone you can talk to when you’re having trouble – and they won’t sugarcoat things,” he explained. “We want to spread the message that we can validate people’s bad days; we validate good all the time.”

How to Help

What signs should someone look for in someone they think is in trouble? The first is attitude changes. Ditz said, “Take the time to ask people how they’re really doing. If you ask someone if they’re suicidal, it will make them feel less so. Be aware of your surroundings and the people around you.

“After they open up, the next step is asking what they want,” he continued. “Do you want me to listen? We need to train ourselves to really listen and take the time to do it. Give them some validation. Ask if there is someone else they can talk to too, someone they can be completely open and up front with. If it’s a professional, offer to go with them. With farmers, find someone to take care of their chores and animals for the day to make it happen. Make sure to follow up. The more candid conversation you have, the better the results.”

Ditz noted that issues vary region to region, but the biggest issue is simply trying to get more help. Not everyone is in a crisis situation; sometimes people just need to talk.

His big goal is ending the stigma surrounding mental health in rural America. “We talk about abuse, rape, sexual assault, COVID – why can’t we talk about mental health?” he asked. “Suicide is the number one most preventable death. We need to talk about it.”

Pete Pompper, National Grange community service director, said that this is the first time the Grange has addressed mental wellness on a national level. The organization will be having more conversations later this year. The Grange will continue to partner with Rural Minds, a nonprofit group designed to help bring to light the lack of mental health programs and facilities in rural America.

“This is where the Grange has the opportunity to step up and help Rural Minds get this information into our communities and to someone who may need that information. We have a great network of Granges in the United States that step up to help time after time,” Pompper said. “There are approximately 1,500 community Granges across the country. That gives us at least 1,500 opportunities to impact and reach someone who is struggling with issues.”

Rural Minds periodically hosts informative webinars, in a format that is timely, informative and free. For more information, visit ruralminds.org.

If you’re ever struggling, you can always call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800.273.8255.

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