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Stepping over the stigma: Peggy Wolner

Peggy Wolner

Editor's note: This story is part of Faces A to Z, a series highlighting familiar — and not so familiar — faces around Goodhue County. Learn more about the series and how to get involed here, and check back to the A to Z page for stories, history lessons and Q&As.

One in five Americans live with a mental health illness. According to National Alliance on Mental Illness statistics, 43.8 million adults experience mental illness in a given year. For Peggy Wolner, national statistics like these have become sacred stories.

"It is hard to come and tell your story," Wolner said, "but it is a powerful thing."

The Red Wing social worker opened her own private practice last May, a seemingly natural progression for Wolner's 36-year career in the field.

"There are many people walking amongst us who are suffering," she said. "It could be a family member, a coworker or friend. You, too, may be suffering or struggling with a change in your life."

Wolner said the old adage of "walk a mile in my shoes" before making a judgement holds very true in regards to mental health illnesses.

"People are well-intentioned but even if we've had a similar experience, we don't know what it's like for another person or what he or she is going through. We want to attend to ourselves before making judgements," she said.

NAMI numbers show that nearly 60 percent of adults with a mental illness do not receive mental health services. Wolner is the first to admit that social workers battle mental health stigmas.

"Many people will say they are fine and they don't need help because they are afraid of mental illness," she said. "It's hard to look at yourself. It is hard to admit that maybe things aren't quite right. People have to come to that on their own."

The hardest step for a prospective therapy client? Acknowledging the need for help, Wolner said.

"Whether someone experiences a traumatic event, loss, stress or just a change, adjustments in your life, simple or hard, affect us all," she said. "People have that inner strength, we just lose our way sometime."

Wolner found her life's calling for social work at an early age. One of nine siblings, she was raised at a rural home near Winona. Wolner said, even with nine children to raise, her mother had a nurturing soft spot for foster children.

"I never understood why we needed to have more children, but my mother just loved taking care of children who needed help," Wolner said.

Social workers would frequent the house to visit with her mother and check on the foster children. A young Peggy soaked up all she could from those visitors.

"I remember one social worker in particular in seventh grade," she said. "I would listen and watch how she did her work, and I remember at that moment I knew I wanted to be a social worker. The feeling never left."

Wolner was recently trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy, or EMDR. This therapy uses a series of eye movements to help people who have experienced a traumatic event, Wolner said.

"When a trauma occurs, the sights, sounds and smells and even how you felt at that moment are locked in a part of your brain," she said. "EMDR therapy is used to put the traumatic part of that event at a distance."

The relatively new therapy method is not any type of hypnosis, Wolner stressed, saying the series of eye movements uses very little talking.

"The treatment can move that image in your mind so it is not impacting your day-to-day functioning."

Wolner said she has seen some great successes from EMDR therapy, and is excited when clients are open to trying the method.

Throughout her career, beginning at a nursing home in Minneapolis to more than a decade as the hospice director at Red Wing Health Center and various clinical positions in between, her counseling approach has grown with her experience, she said.

"That first job I had the altruistic view that I was going to change the world," Wolner said with a laugh. "It used to me about me — I can change this so that you can feel a certain way."

Thirty-some odd years later, in a cozy office on the third floor of the Pottery Place Mall, Wolner said she is more comfortable than ever in her profession.

"I hold my profession to a very high standard," she said. Her practice is credentialed with most insurance companies.

"My counseling approach is pretty forthcoming," Wolner said. "I am honest with people and will challenge them."

To describe her practice, Wolner uses the slogan 'working together to reclaim the strength within.'

"The more experience I've had, the more I draw from what's in here," Wolner said, motioning to her heart.

"We all have stuff," she said. "The success of therapy is determined by the person's commitment to changing. I have the awareness and education to help develop coping strategies and help people use their own inner strength. Accepting help and working towards feeling better has to come from you."