July 12, 2021 at 12:58 p.m.

It is OK to not be OK

Ditzenberger creates TUGS to build mental health awareness, prevent suicide
Former dairy farmer Jeff Ditzenberger is the founder of the nonprofit, TUGS – Talking, Understanding, Growing, Supporting. The nonprofit was established in 2015 to build awareness for mental health and suicide prevention. PHOTO BY STACEY SMART
Former dairy farmer Jeff Ditzenberger is the founder of the nonprofit, TUGS – Talking, Understanding, Growing, Supporting. The nonprofit was established in 2015 to build awareness for mental health and suicide prevention. PHOTO BY STACEY SMART

By Stacey [email protected] | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

    MONROE, Wis. – In 1991, Jeff Ditzenberger hit rock bottom and thought the only solution was to end his life. The decision was not spontaneous. Ditzenberger spent six weeks planning his suicide. He planned to die in an abandoned, burning house that he intentionally set on fire. But when the building went up in flames, Ditzenberger changed his mind.
    “I had an out-of-body experience and thought, ‘What am I doing?’” Ditzenberger said. “So, I ran next door and called 911.”
    Ditzenberger kept the fact he was trying to kill himself a secret and was charged with felony arson. He spent nine months in jail and received a $10,000 fine and five years probation for his actions. Many years passed before Ditzenberger admitted what really happened that night.  
    “I was less embarrassed of being a volunteer firefighter charged with arson than I was of admitting I had problems,” Ditzenberger said.
    Knowing dark days all too well, Ditzenberger decided he wanted to help others dealing with mental health problems. In 2015, he formed a nonprofit organization called TUGS – which stands for Talking, Understanding, Growing, Supporting. The group’s mission is to build awareness about mental health and suicide prevention through community outreach. A former dairy farmer and farm equipment salesman, Ditzenberger works with farmers as well as men and women from every walk of life.
    “Our tagline is, ‘It’s OK to not be OK,’” Ditzenberger said. “People need to know it’s OK to have a bad day. It’s OK to have mental health problems.”
    Ditzenberger is devoting his life to helping people who are experiencing mental health issues, particularly those who are suicidal.
    “I feel like I understand people’s pain,” he said. “I remember how bad I once felt, and I don’t want anyone else to feel like that.”
    The idea for TUGS came from Ditzenberger’s time in the Navy spent on a large ship at sea. When the ship wanted to come into port, it had to call a tugboat. Ditzenberger said he could hear the toot-toot of the tugboat and see the little puffs of smoke but could not see the boat itself because of its small size.
    “A tugboat provides a sense of calm as it pulls you safely into port or rescues you from treacherous waters,” Ditzenberger said. “Why can’t life be like this? Even big ships need a little help sometimes. Find an unbiased person to be your tugboat.”
    A support group with worldwide reach, TUGS is promoted by word of mouth and social media.
    “We post a lot of stuff on Facebook and provide a vast array of referral information and resources,” Ditzenberger said. “We’re like tugboats floating around waiting for people to call us. My goal is to see more TUGS organizations form throughout the country.”
    Erasing the stigma about mental health and the stereotype that men cannot share their feelings are two key areas TUGS focuses on.
    “The stigma surrounding mental health needs to stop,” Ditzenberger said. “I think we should be able to talk about mental health as freely as we talk about the common cold or COVID-19.”
    Ditzenberger is a certified mental health coach, Question Persuade Refer specialist, public speaker, comedian and ordained minister who touches as many lives as he can. He gives talks all over the country for audiences of all kinds. Ditzenberger also works for a crop farmer and is active in his community, coaching softball and sitting on several boards, including Habitat for Humanity.
    “As a society, we teach toxic masculinity, which is ridiculous,” Ditzenberger said. “Men are told to put on this tough exterior and be there for our families. It’s so ingrained in men to not talk about our feelings because we are told it makes us vulnerable and weak. But we’re human beings too. At TUGS, we help men open up about their feelings.”
    Ditzenberger grew up on a 50-cow dairy. When he was 17, he enlisted in serving during the Gulf War. Ditzenberger has post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and anxiety, and has also dealt with alcohol addiction.
    “I have PTSD very bad brought on my numerous things in my life,” Ditzenberger said. “But I made a choice a while ago to not let my mental health be a crutch. Rather, I decided to make my mental health a learning tool for everyone, including myself. Do I still have bad days? Of course. There are times I have bad weeks.”
    Ditzenberger has had mental health problems for years and has endured side effects from medical treatments.
    “The side effects for mental health drugs are usually worse than the problem they are treating,” Ditzenberger said. “If you take these drugs, take time to learn the side effects, and make sure you monitor your moods. If your mood isn’t good, tell your provider.”
    Ditzenberger has no room for negative comments that foster a cycle of mental suppression. Before his suicide attempt, he reached out to friends but received responses like, ‘Suck it up buttercup,’ ‘Tomorrow is a better day,’ or ‘Let’s go get a drink.’
    “Toxic positivity is no good either,” Ditzenberger said. “Why can’t we validate someone’s bad day? If I see someone struggling, I’ll say, ‘It’s OK to be upset.’ That’s more powerful than hearing, ‘Somebody’s got it worse than you, suck it up.’ We don’t have to tell everybody to have a good day. People need to process things before they get to that point. Having a good day is not as easy as flipping a light switch.”  
    Ditzenberger said to be aware of the warning signs for suicide.
    “If I give you my prized possessions, or say things like, ‘I wish I would just go to sleep and never wake up,’ pay attention because those are cries for help,” Ditzenberger said.
    When a person drops hints about suicide, Ditzenberger said it is important to reassure them their life is worth living and let them know there are people who are happy they are alive. Ask them if they want to talk to a professional or perhaps a member of the clergy.
    “People who are at the point I was at in 1991 just want somebody to listen,” Ditzenberger said. “If anybody would’ve asked me if I was suicidal, I would’ve told them the truth. Suicidal people are very honest. But the problem is, nobody wants to ask that question. We need to have conversations about mental health and suicide. These conversations are tough, but the conversation at a visitation is worse. Suicide is the No. 1 preventable death. We’re not going to save everyone, but we have to try.”  
    Ditzenberger said farmers can get vouchers through the Wisconsin Farm Center to see a licensed therapist. The center also provides a 24/7 Farmer Wellness Hotline by calling 1-888-901-2558. People seeking lifesaving help should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “HOPELINE” to 741741. The Got Your Back app is designed to help teenagers.
    “Dairy farmers will strip down to a T-shirt in minus 40-degree weather to save a momma cow and a calf,” Ditzenberger said. “Sometimes, we have to reach out to someone who will do the same for us. From cattle to crops, farmers have so much to take care of and are under a lot of stress. They’re worried about all kinds of stuff, but we don’t have to handle everything internally.”
    Ditzenberger stressed the importance of being kind, reaching out to people and trying to understand what someone is going through.
    “If someone is having a rough day, they need to know it’s OK,” Ditzenberger said. “Sometimes, you just need someone to listen and not give any advice. Sitting down for a minute with a person who is having a bad day can make all the difference. If you validate someone’s feelings, you’ve planted the seed of hope, and seeds of hope keep people alive.”


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