Aaron Rasch has been to dark places.

Early in the 34-year-old’s life, he turned to alcohol and substance abuse and did just enough to get by in college. But then he took a job that changed his life and started him down a career path he was passionate about.

Rasch will share his personal experiences and accrued knowledge during a first-of-its-kind program at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church on Sunday called Changing Minds. The session, from 3 to 6 p.m., will feature informal and informative discussions about mental health issues that afflict people.

“We want to have the start of a conversation,” said Teresa O’Donnell Ebner, who serves on the church’s social concerns committee and originally came up with the idea for a mental health program. “We know that mental health issues are very diverse, and part of what we want is just to be able to have a conversation and get people talking about things a little bit.”

Therapists and counselors from the congregation will be on hand to sit in on a panel discussion about the topic, as well as answer questions and provide general information. In addition, Rasch will lead exercises talking about the myths of mental illness. And throughout the afternoon, local mental health resources will be highlighted so people seeking help can find it.

A deeper sense of purpose

For the past 11 years, Rasch has worked for Independent Living Resources, a nonprofit organization in La Crosse where he works with people who have a variety of disabilities – though he’s honed in on those with mental illnesses or addictions.

“I generally work to help people get back on their feet,” Rasch said, “connecting people with employment, housing and helping people utilize the system and supports in the community. Really, it’s building independence.”

It’s a long way from where he started, coming from a time in his formative years when he found himself involved with drugs and alcohol.

“I struggled through adolescence. I was probably on a path to do everything to harm myself,” Rasch said. “Making the worst decisions possible, not handling the stress well. I would bury myself and basically drown my brain in substance abuse because I was just not thinking straight.”

He admits it took awhile to learn and grow, but what ultimately allowed him to do that was finding his sense of purpose, which started when he took a job at an adult group home for people with disabilities in Menomonie, Wis., while attending the University of Wisconsin-Stout.

“I went in there and found a deeper sense of purpose for my life, and I also had a deeper ability to listen to people,” he said. “I could hear them more deeply, though the folks I was supporting had very limited vocabulary.”

That was a turning point for Rasch as he began to consider all that was possible for his life in that area, and even though he didn’t have formal training in it, he had intuitive knowledge because of all he had gone through.

“When people are isolated and they’re alone, and they have nobody to go to, that, to me, is the disease,” he said.

Though he draws his experience from his work, his own personal experience is something he never thought he could use to help better others’ lives.

“I started working here and started to embrace my personal experience more, and I think that’s helped because I’ve developed a deeper, more genuine connection with people I’m supporting,” said Rasch, who now works more to support organizations like his around the state. “I see the ebb and flow of life, so I support people before I look at their apparent deficiencies.”

And that work is what drew Prince of Peace to seek him out after O’Donnell Ebner read a story in the La Crosse Tribune highlighting an award Rasch received for his work in helping destigmatize mental illness. He was invited to an early planning meeting and made an immediate impression.

“He was so ready to jump into this,” O’Donnell Ebner said. “When you meet him, there is just this positive energy and I think that’s going to add a good dimension.”

The program is open to everyone in the community, with a special invitation to students because of the variety of stresses teenagers face. Parents, too, are encouraged to attend with to find out what signs to look for in their child of possible mental health problems.

“Nearly every family is touched by this, in one way or another,” O’Donnell Ebner said, quoting a statistic from the website makeitok.org that states one in four people will have some sort of mental illness in their lifetime. “(The website) talks about how common mental health issues are and how many people struggle with that, and yet, there is still this stigma that stays with that.”

Mental health touches a lot of lives, but at the same time, it isn’t talked about often, she added, until they’re brought to the forefront with events such as the passing of actor Robin Williams, who it was later discovered was suffering from mental health issues at the time of his death.

“Mental illness is a brain disorder,” she said. “And to start to learn and know more about this, I just think it’s a part of our population and a part of our health that people just are too afraid to have conversations about.

“I think sometimes, you don’t know what to say or you’re afraid you’re going to say the wrong thing. Then people don’t say anything.”

The event is a starting place – a place to begin the conversation and then proceed as needed, whether that means focusing on teenagers and issues they face, such as bullying, or problems spurred by drug and alcohol abuse. O’Donnell Ebner thought the timing was right to host a discussion like this.

“The thing I think is going to be powerful about this day is the storytelling and Aaron’s story,” she said. “When you can put a face to what you’re talking about, I think that makes a big difference. We understand it better when it’s someone’s personal story they’re sharing.”

Though Rasch believes his personal experience helps him help others dealing with these issues, he’s never considered himself a token of it, meaning he doesn’t say, “If I can do it, so can you,” he said.

“I’m not trying to match my struggles to your struggles, but I just understand enough where dark pain can be and where you can get out,” he said. “I feel like I can relate to it a little bit … and I don’t judge. I think that’s the biggest thing with someone who’s struggling or making unhealthy choices because I know. I’ve been there.”

And because he has, he doesn’t view mental illness as a disease, but rather, an experience – one that can happen to someone at some point and can also be cured.

“Mentally ill to me means you’re experiencing a mental illness right now,” he said, “like you’re maybe not healthy right now, but can be.

“I don’t like to label a person because of an apparent challenge they’re going through. There’s a better way to look at it. … To treat it just scientifically or medicalize it, it’s inaccurate.”

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