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Support Mental Health In Rural America

The value of sharing lived experiences


Story courtesy of Family Features

Throughout many parts of the country, an increased understanding of mental health has led to enhanced awareness of its importance. However, in some instances, a gap remains between understanding mental health and embracing solutions, particularly in rural areas.

“When my 28-year-old nephew died by suicide in a farming community where mental illness was a subject never discussed, my mother courageously announced, ‘Enough is enough. We are going to talk about this and we are going to talk about this in detail,’” says Jeff Winton, founder and chairman of the board of nonprofit Rural Minds.

His commitment to confronting suicide and mental illness in rural areas supports the goal of the organization to serve as an informed voice for mental health in rural America and provide mental health information and resources.


The stigma often associated with mental health challenges is a major barrier to individuals seeking help in rural communities. The organization is working to confront the stigma through people talking about their personal, lived experiences with mental illness.

Recognizing the value of sharing deeply personal accounts of mental illness is also the message of Jeff Ditzenberger, a farmer who attempted suicide. His challenges confronting and managing his bipolar II disorder while returning to farming motivated him to found TUGS, a mental health nonprofit that addresses the stigma surrounding mental health challenges and suicide.

Ditzenberger is working with Rural Minds to encourage others in rural areas to talk about their challenges with PTSD, bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia or other issues. The goal is for people to become as comfortable with the discussion of mental health as they are talking about COVID-19, the common cold or the flu.


Mental health professionals agree that opening up about mental health challenges can be the first step to finding a path forward.

“Sharing the burden of mental illness and life experiences can be really, really powerful,” says Dr. Mark A. Fry, consultant in the Department of Psychiatry and Psychology at Mayo Clinic. “As a psychiatrist, I would tell you it’s a critically important part of the overall treatment plan. In my opinion, the concept of providing peer support — sharing lived experiences with mental illness and supporting each other — really is invaluable.”

Some people do not recognize mental illness as a disease; rather, it is sometimes perceived as a character flaw or personal weakness.

“Similar to many people in rural America, I grew up on a farm and was taught to pull myself up by my bootstraps and get over it, to just move on and to not think about it,” Winton says. “Well, that is not an acceptable response to a mental illness. You don’t do that with other illnesses. You can’t do that with mental illness.”

Rural Minds is partnering with The National Grange, a family, community organization with roots in agriculture that was founded in 1867.

“Our aim in collaborating is to develop a grassroots, person-to-person approach to provide people who live in rural communities with mental health and suicide prevention information by working with local Granges, civic groups and community leaders across the country,” Winton says.

For more information, visit ruralminds.org, which also offers access to recordings of educational webinars presented by the organization.