Crushing Mental Health Stigma and Empowering Through Experience

Crushing Mental Health Stigma with Christma Rusch | Reduce The Stigma - Meet The Peer

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In this episode of MeetThePeer, host Whitney Menarcheck interviews Christma Rusch, a Certified Peer Support Specialist and Recovery Coach in Wisconsin. Christma shares her lived experience, including growing up in a challenging environment and her own struggles with mental health and substance use disorder . She discusses the importance of empowering individuals through peer support and creating safe spaces for healing. Christma also talks about her latest venture, Crusched Smash and Art Studio, which aims to reduce stigma surrounding mental health. The conversation highlights the need to challenge stigma and celebrate the strength and resilience of individuals living with mental health and substance use needs.

Click here for the episode’s full transcript.

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Whitney (00:47)
on this episode of Meet the Peer, we have Christma Rush,

a certified peer support specialist and recovery coach in Wisconsin. Welcome, Christma.

Christma (00:55)
Hey, thanks, Whitney. Great to be here.

Whitney (00:59)
Excited to have you here and to learn more about you, your journey and your work as a peer. And so let’s start just right there with your journey. Can you tell us a little bit about your lived experience?

Christma (01:11)
Um, so honestly, I feel like a lot of my lived experience starts with like the very beginning. Um, and my mom was a, , women’s and gay rights activist in the late 1970s. And she had a lifestyle that was not accepted like it is today. Um, and because of that, she faced a lot of adversity, um, including losing me to the foster care system when I was six months old. Um, she fought, she did everything that she needed to do to prove herself to the County, um, back then.

And she regained custody of me when I was 18 months old. And then our apartment burned down when I was three. And she had a tough decision to make. She’s like, well, I can either go back to Miami or I could go back to Wisconsin where she was born and she was like, it’s probably a lot safer to raise a child in Wisconsin than in Miami. So we trucked up to Wisconsin and.

That is really where the confusion set in for me, at least that I started to understand or put pieces together as I got older. In the sense of the confusion and the shame of wanting to make the adults in my world better or if they were just better, I would be better. My grandparents did not accept her lifestyle.

And so what I saw happen was my mom had to be somebody that she wasn’t. And that created a lot of mental illness for her. And so it was, it was very confusing to grow up and not understand why she shifted when we moved up there, even though she thought it was in my best interest to do so. My grandparents, my grandfather was a deacon in the Catholic church. So I was raised, they were my care providers when my mom worked.

and I was to be still, behave, be quiet. And that was, I was three. So if you can only imagine, but I was just like, like I can’t even imagine how generations before grew up, but it really, it messed with my psyche because I was extremely alone. I was an only child of an only child. And I had no one to process all this, you know, dysfunction kind of happening. And really what I’ve come to understand is spiritual trauma. So.

What my lived experience turned out to be was, you know, somebody with mental health and substance use disorder. And what I always often say is people that utilize those coping skills, what I’ve seen are highly intelligent and highly sensitive individuals. And when nobody teaches you how to cope with life, to me, self-medicating is brilliant. So that was the path that I chose.

And it was, you know, destructive, of course. And there were years where I’d come out of it and live like a functional life. And then because I hadn’t done the healing work, really through connection with, you know, somebody that I could process these things out with, I would spiral backward. And it would lead me back to the substance use or the mental health issues. So I struggled with that all the way until I was 26.

… it was with the substance use and now i’ve … then … in recovery from substance use disorder since october twenty second two thousand and five and i wish i could say the same for mental health … but that’s an ongoing … you know i’ve worked in the field i’ve worked in juvenile justice … I absolutely love working with middle school and high school kids that struggle with … mental health and substance use issues.

That’s kind of a specialty as a foster parent. That’s the kids that we work with. And just because my husband and I so much understand what it’s like growing up in the system and in the criminal justice system, and we’ve been able to connect with those individuals on a deeper level. And okay, pause. Let me think where I’m at. 26, mental health, ongoing, working with youth.

And then I founded an organization in 2018 called Lighthouse Recovery Community Center. And that is an organization to empower those with substance use disorder. And we do that by providing education, recovery resources, and recovery support services. So that it’s a safe space and we honor all pathways there. So all I knew was coming from a 12-step foundation,

that I saw something that was like putting a round peg or square peg in a round hole. I just knew that there had to be individualized support. I knew that there had to be something besides like one way or four meetings a week, one hour a day, you know. So that was really the drive to create a safe space for people to heal from their substance use disorder. And of course, along with that, the majority, about 90% of individuals with substance use disorder also

Whitney (06:14)

Christma (06:25)
struggle with mental health. So mental health continues to be work to make sure, especially working in the field of addiction and recovery, and with the kiddos with mental health that I am always working really hard to make sure that I’m connected to a good support network and working to take good care of myself, which is probably the hardest thing coming from the background of like, oh, I gotta take care of everyone else.

So I totally get, you know, that shift is very difficult for a lot of people, not just me.

Whitney (06:55)

Yes, absolutely. And thank you for sharing all that. What a story and journey and congratulations. That’s what 17 years if I can do math. 18. Okay. That’s amazing. Congratulations. And, you know, I think you touched on something that a lot of people

Christma (07:18)
I just celebrated 18 years last month. Yeah, it’s crazy. Yeah.

Thank you.

Whitney (07:28)
don’t realize which is that mental health is an ongoing need to tend to take care of and it’s not this checkbox. So thank you for sharing that.

Christma (07:40)
Thank you. Yeah, absolutely. We need maintenance. That’s what I always think of. Like there’s always the maintenance aspect of things. So what does that look like? So as a provider, like I have to assure people that I too am making sure that I am taking care of my mental health as well.

Whitney (07:57)
And if you don’t mind, you mentioned spiritual trauma. Can you just share in your own words what that means?

Christma (08:05)
So in a bigger picture, not just spiritual trauma, we can look at anything systematic. School systems, financial systems, governmental systems, and religious systems as well. So the spiritual piece is just one aspect of this. But any time that we are taken from our center, which is truly who our authentic self is, that is when I believe mental health issues arise, is when we’re pulled away from our authentic selves.

And so there’s all these systems kind of in place to tell us what is right and wrong, instead of us coming to our own understanding of discernment. They, we are taught with a, with judgment, condemnation, criticism. I think that is a plague of our culture today, but I feel a shift happening, thankfully. But really that is the effects of the…

those systematic traumas and for me spiritual trauma and the education system was another system that really kind of made me out to be the bad kid, right? Because I wanted to be rambunctious and I wanted to be rough and I wanted to play and I wanted to be loud and normal things that kids would do. That was authentic. That was joyful. That was where I believe we’re supposed to be.

But the conditioning of my upbringing and other systems said, nope, this means you have this disorder. You’re letting, you know, now I had this label. And either way, ultimately what I came up with was I’m bad. And I’m not lovable and I’m not worthy of, you know, good things or to be cared for or to be listened to and heard because I am a little child or I am a girl or, you know, like,

or I can’t do math, you know, the same as everybody else, or I can’t sit in a seat for very long like everybody else, and it’s not everybody else. But, so that’s what I mean by the spiritual trauma, but there are other systems that definitely take us away from that authentic peace that we should embrace.

Whitney (10:21)
Absolutely. And to hear that at such a young age when we’re trying to make sense of the world, and you mentioned not having someone else to process the experience of moving to Wisconsin with, children naturally, especially in those, I think it’s six to nine year age, they’re very, whenever something happens in the world, it’s a reflection of them. Because that’s just how they understand the world at that time. And that can really impact their whole

life perspective then if at that age they’re not told no it’s not you’re not bad this is what happened.

Christma (10:58)

Whitney (11:02)
And so you talk about, you know, you have substance use history, you have mental health, you have created an organization and you’re a peer support and a recovery coach. What led you to kind of start taking on these roles as a peer specialist recovery coach, provider in the space?

Christma (11:14)
Thank you.

Um, lack of resources is one big one. And then also the empowering experience of like my lived experience matters, right? And my story can help somebody else. And really I feel like lifting each other up through our broken, you know, times and experiences, um, like there’s no, there’s really no other better gift to be able to like…

but it wasn’t all in vain right like these things happened and it was lonely and it was scary and it’s confusing I get where you’re at you know like to be able to connect with another human and understand those things so … lack of providers and really … being like wow you like the self-efficacy of like and the expert right of my experience and of

coming up with the solutions to get better and heal through this process. So to empower others to also feel that piece of like, no, you do know, and I’m just here to like walk alongside of you.

Whitney (12:29)
That your authentic self is good, is great, is the expert in this case.

Christma (12:32)
Yes. Yes, absolutely. Yes. And to draw that out. Yeah, definitely.

Whitney (12:39)
Yeah, oh, I love that. And that’s something that very few people really have the safe space to be their authentic selves. And so that can be just so powerful to say, no, I accept you exactly how you are.

Christma (12:50)

Yeah, yeah, because we have to mirror that back for people, right, and like reflect back to them. We have to speak that love and that what we see into people so they understand just how amazing and brilliant they are.

Whitney (13:13)
Right, until they can see it themselves, we can kind of be that guide, that source for them.

Christma (13:20)
Yeah, absolutely.

Whitney (13:23)
And so you talked about getting involved because of a lack of services or resources and things like that. What really excites you about the work that you do?

Christma (13:36)
Like the light go on, fanning the spark that comes on for them and watching people come back into an understanding of who they are and what it is that they need. I think that’s a bit like we in our mental health crisis is that detachment that happens of like it almost becomes surreal and then I become lost and like I don’t even know what my own feelings are and I don’t even know what my own needs are.

And to watch somebody like start to be able to identify, regulate, and also then nurture themselves in the process. Like that is an amazing experience, whether it’s like I can prepare my own meals or I can shower today or hey, I got this application in. Like it is just so amazing to watch people be like, yes, I can do this. Yes, I can start to move forward.

Whitney (14:34)
That I’m just kind of thinking about that all of that and how, you know, the word of the kind of decade is empowerment, but that is empowering, right? And how much that can do for someone because for especially individuals who are struggling with mental health or substance use, they’re so used to being told they’re failures. So even something you say, getting in an application, making a meal, that’s a significant accomplishment

Christma (14:46)


Whitney (15:03)
that people tend to not recognize and give themselves credit for.

Christma (15:07)
Yeah, no, absolutely. It’s like celebrating the small things are a big thing. And we all deserve a party for all these little steps that we take forward. Often I use the example of individuals that are beating themselves up, right? Like, I should be farther. I should have known better. And I give this example of if your family member of one year old comes stomping in the room

and they fall because they’re learning how to walk. Do you yell at them? Of course not. They’re learning how to walk. And I’m like, why do we view ourselves any different as we try to navigate this crazy world, right, of darkness that we’re trying to bring light to? It is confusing and we should be very gentle because we are all children of this beautiful, beautiful Earth.

Whitney (16:01)
And so there’s certainly that self-empowerment and independence that you are clearly fostering with those that you work with and encounter. What other things are kind of central to how you engage with people, whether through recovery coaching, peer support, or in general in this space?

Christma (16:24)
Besides letting all the formalities go, I feel like everybody I connect with can let all the conditioning go. Whether they’re partners in the community, they can talk to me on a friend level. They can connect and not worry about are they going to get in trouble or are they saying something bad. I think that’s a big piece in connecting. The other piece is really about having fun.

I feel like we’re supposed to be joyful beings. I feel like we are meant to create things. So any way that we can take this energy, this, the hurt, the pain, the confusion, all that energy that we like, like how can we channel that into creating something beautiful? And maybe it’s not art, although that’s a great channel that we do here, but maybe it’s in other ways, physical activity, meditations, just like how can we channel this?

energy inside of us to release the things that no longer serve us. So that’s kind of a big focus and laughter is one of them. So if we can do it in a joyful carefree way we definitely want to utilize you know having fun and enjoying life.

Whitney (17:41)
Now hearing all that, that makes me think about a new endeavor that you are taking on. Do you mind sharing with us a little bit about your newest adventure?

Christma (17:50)
Yeah, it’s interesting you say that because as I’m sharing, it’s like, oh, I created that space. So I know, I’m like, wait a minute. So my husband and I and my daughter, who also is in recovery from mental health, we opened up a smash and art studio and it is super fun. We have the theme. We are a social enterprise to reduce stigma surrounding mental health. And so our space is about normalizing the conversation.

Whitney (17:57)
You did! You did!

Christma (18:20)
We do have provider information right here in the smash room, but we also have a mural that tells the exact story that I’ve been sharing about of this little kid who’s colorful and vibrant and then he becomes a teenager and he’s on a skateboard. He’s still vibrant, but the color is fading behind him. And then as you walk into the smash room, there’s an angry man all in black leather.

black motor cycle, and he’s smashing his foot in the ground, like breaking the ground. And so like the discussion just becomes as simple as that. If people wanna engage, it’s like what happens along the way? What conditioning, what stress, being an adult, what are all these things that are put on us that takes us away from that joy and that creativity and kind of shuts that light out and the color that we have. And so smashing stuff and we clean it up, great way to channel energy. It’s.

fun to watch people let go of the rules, although there’s a couple rules, but we tell people that there are no rules, except for the ones that are spray painted on the wall. And then our paint splatter room, oh my gosh, we had these 60 year old ladies last night, one was a surprise for her birthday, and to see this sisterhood of like, they have canvases to paint on, but oh no, I mean squirt guns and just like…

Whitney (19:21)
I’m gonna go.

Christma (19:44)
tearing after each other, just squirting the paint all over each other. And just the laughter of like, you know, just completely like, who cares? It’s messy, it’s… It’s good

Christma (19:57)
I said, so created a space like that. And what we hope to do is develop peer support here. We have a sound and vibration bed coming, and then Reiki as well. So it’s kind of eclectic and really hard for branding aspects of it. So there’s.

Whitney (19:57)
You’re good.


That’s, I just think you’ve said the word energy multiple times and that’s all I’m thinking of, you know, the energy going into smashing, the energy of joy of, you know, squirting someone with paint, you know, the vibrations, just all of this and everything that gets built up in us, the positive and the negative, because even the positive we don’t always let ourselves experience and let out. We hold in everything.

Christma (20:42)
Thank you.

Whitney (20:45)
And I think I need to make a trip to Wisconsin.

Christma (20:49)
That’s so cool. I love that idea. That is so interesting because I work on, I’m doing a training right now and it’s called Emotions Memory Pattern Release. And it’s a rapid trauma release technique. It’s six parts. And we literally go through the embodiment piece of pulling those things that like, a lot of my constriction is in my throat or in that solar plexus area. And it’s like…

It is, to your point, it’s like, what am I containing or constricting that I just need to continue to like, it’s okay, you know, to like release and to know that we have the ability to connect with our bodies in such a way to release those things, I think is a very powerful technique to work with people.

Whitney (21:38)
Absolutely. Oh, yes, I think a trip is in order. And just for anyone who may be in Wisconsin, what is, can you share the name of your Smash Studio?

Christma (21:50)
Yep, so it’s Crusched Smash and Art Studio. C-R-U-S-C-H-E-D, Crusched Smash and Art Studio. Yeah.

Whitney (21:59)
That’s wonderful. So you are doing this that is also in the world of mental health, mental wellbeing, emotional wellbeing. And that kind of brings me to, that’s not something you would normally think of, right? You wouldn’t think of this joyous experience as part of wellbeing, because a lot of times, people just have these thoughts out there, right? Of how it’s supposed to be.

And there’s so many different stigmas associated with both mental health and substance use and Honestly, there’s a stigma with even just taking care of yourself and putting yourself first You know like the little the young Chris Mahoo wanted to put make sure the adults were okay What would you like to say to challenge stigma?

Christma (22:44)
Thank you.

Hmm that there’s hope I think that’s the biggest thing is like I in our experience with light house We somehow

Christma (23:12)
Now I gotta think about what the question was.

Whitney (23:15)
It was about stigma and you started off with that there is hope.

Christma (23:17)
Oh, yes. Yeah. So I think in order for us to one is educating people about what is the possibilities because I think we stay. I think stigma one comes from a lack of understanding, you know, like what we fear is what we judge kind of thing. So same thing. Stigma really comes from the lack of understanding or like walls up, right? Because they’re afraid of it.

and they don’t want to be hurt by it. That’s what we’ve experienced a lot as well. It’s like they don’t want to open that door because then they have to admit that there’s something wrong. And really, if we come with a solution right away, where’s the stigma? If we come and we educate right away and we let people know that this is really a disorder, this is a chronic health disorder that, we give examples, part of my education is.

somebody with a diagnosis of cancer. People don’t like all back away and say, good luck. But you know, people come in a holistic manner these days and go, okay, so we’re gonna do this. You got friends bringing in meals. You got this treatment happening. That is what we all need to try to navigate this world. Just because it’s not a disease in an organ, maybe, you know, like in one of those breakdown areas, the diseases appear.

You know, and that’s what makes it so complex. And so we talk a lot about educating the community to reduce the stigma and to show them what the solution is as well.

Whitney (24:55)
That’s, you know, you’re right. The education interactions with people who are of a whatever component of them that you may have a negative thought of that is the way to address stigma is just making it real and a little bit more personal and

Christma (25:13)
Yeah, well, I’m sharing the success stories too. Kind of like what you’re doing by highlighting all these peers is like, all these people have struggled and look where they’re at now and look what they’re doing. That fights stigma in itself.

Whitney (25:28)
Exactly. And, you know, for so long, people who have been in, who are in recovery or continuing to live with, you know, mental health or substance use needs have been put into the shadows and told they can’t be their authentic self. And that does nothing but fuel the stigma and the self stigma, the self hatred. And so it’s time that we bring people into the spotlight because anyone who has achieved a place of

recovery or stability with their mental health and wellbeing. That’s a huge accomplishment. And that is a significant strength that people are not usually recognizing.

Christma (26:08)
Right, I agree completely.

Whitney (26:12)
So there will definitely be someone who listens to this or watches and is in that place of struggle. What would you like them to hear?

Christma (26:19)

that they’re not alone, and that they’re, you know, that I definitely understand what it’s like to feel absolutely desperate and hopeless and feeling like there’s no way out. That’s the worst, like feeling like everything, and like, it’s not even feeling like there’s no way out. It’s knowing that there is a way out and not feeling able to do it.

Like that to me is the crushing, like, and then it goes on, you know, it’s like this layered effect of like, I should be able to do this and I should be able to do that and why can’t I? And so like I’m just… Mm-hmm. Yeah, right, right? And like that, I guess it’s like there’s nothing wrong. I know even in the spiritual healing that I’ve done is like, there’s not even healing that needs to happen. We are, we continue…

Whitney (27:02)
What’s wrong with me that I can’t do it?

Christma (27:19)
to be whole beings, but we need people to reflect, you know, that wholeness back to us. And so like, I want to be there for others, for them to see that they are beautiful, you know, children of God, whatever you wanna call it, the divine, that is meant to come back and be alive and be joyful and carefree again.

Whitney (27:43)
Well, Christma, thank you for sharing all of this and taking the time to talk to me. I feel like we could continue talking for hours. I really enjoyed it. And I know that this is going to resonate with many people out there.

Christma (27:58)
Thanks, I appreciate that. I hope I’m looking forward to touching those people and connecting with those individuals.

Whitney (28:06)
And if you’re one of those people who would like to work with Christma you can visit the link in our show notes. And on behalf of Straight Up Care, thank you all for joining us.

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