Jenna Mehnert is executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Maine.  Credit: Courtesy of NAMI Maine

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, call the Maine Crisis Hotline at 888-568-1112.

Update: Since this story was published, NAMI Maine’s board of directors released a statement on its website that can be viewed here.

In the wake of a Bangor Daily News investigation into allegations that the chief executive officer of the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness created a “toxic” work environment, current and former employees and local leaders have called on the board of directors to step up, expressing frustration at a lack of action and public communication.

One local leader has asked for the board to place NAMI Maine CEO Jenna Mehnert on administrative leave until allegations are investigated. A former affiliate leader said Mehnert should issue a public apology and told the board she believes the agency itself is “at risk.” And a group of seven former staff, volunteers, donors and others on Friday requested a meeting with the board to hear “what steps are being taken.” As of Tuesday afternoon, they had not received a reply.

Fifteen former employees of NAMI Maine, the state’s most prominent mental health advocacy organization, spoke to the BDN about the “demoralizing” ways Mehnert treats staff, resulting in high turnover, for an Oct. 30 story. In the last seven years, 64 staff have left the organization, which typically has between 20 and 25 people at one time, according to a group of former staff that, after the article published, created a comprehensive list of those who had departed.

Mehnert handed down unpredictable reprimands, acted combative when people asked her questions, criticized employees behind their backs and spoke down to them directly, making it difficult for people to succeed in their jobs, said the former employees, many of whom quit to preserve their own mental health. They kept documentation of the treatment in emails, text messages, recordings and memos. Several former staff complained, most recently in September, to the organization’s board members, whose responses made them believe little would change.

Mehnert told the BDN she had never created a hostile work environment and warned against any story built on “people’s perceptions.”

Since the story, the board of NAMI Maine, which runs a network of resources to support people and families with mental illnesses and raises awareness of mental health issues, has hired Portland lawyer Erik Peters to investigate the allegations in the BDN article, according to Amy Hodgdon, president of NAMI Maine’s board of directors.

Hodgdon provided an update about the board’s response at the NAMI Bath-Brunswick affiliate’s Nov. 8 board meeting, which was public and recorded.

The board plans to task Peters with answering “pointed questions” related to the organization’s human resources processes and public relations, Hodgdon said. “We originally were thinking we would maybe just set him onto a path of some sort of investigation, but it’s expensive. It really is expensive, and we realize what we really need is a hard look at our human resources structure and also our public relations.”

But Tracie Morgan, with the NAMI Bath-Brunswick affiliate who acts as a liason to the main office, raised concerns with the board’s approach. Local affiliates provide the support groups and family classes that NAMI Maine is contracted to provide.

For one, the board has not placed Mehnert on administrative leave while it is investigating, which it should do “immediately,” Morgan wrote in a Nov. 12 letter to Hodgdon that was obtained by the BDN.

What’s more, Morgan said it appears the lawyer will only interview current staff, which is a mistake because they are likely hesitant to speak, especially if Mehnert continues to supervise them.

“Former staff are the catalyst for this entire thing,” Morgan wrote in the letter. “At a minimum, their written comments should be solicited and considered by Mr. Peters.”

Asked in the Nov. 8 meeting if the board would allow the lawyer to interview both former and current employees, Hodgdon, the board chair, told people to send her specific questions in writing so she could share them with the full board.

In addition, Morgan expressed dismay at the lack of public communication from the board, given that NAMI Maine needs its members, partner agencies, donors and affiliates to “survive.”

NAMI Maine, a chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, employs between 20 to 25 people at its office in Hallowell. It’s pictured Oct. 29, 2020. Credit: Caitlin Andrews / BDN

NAMI Maine has been advised by the National Alliance on Mental Illness to not respond directly to the BDN article, Hodgdon replied in an email to Morgan. However, a statement from the board, to be posted on NAMI Maine’s website, had been drafted, sent to staff for review and was being redrafted “as I write this email,” Hodgdon wrote on Friday, Nov. 13.

Four days later, on Tuesday evening, the statement was not on the organization’s website. In an email to the BDN, Hodgdon said it would be posted by noon on Wednesday.

The turnover at NAMI Maine and views expressed by Mehnert in the BDN article are cause for concern, wrote Betsy Rose, who stepped down as the affiliate president of NAMI Bangor in September, in a Nov. 13 letter to the board.

Annual turnover at nonprofit social service agencies is typically less than 20 percent, but NAMI Maine’s has been around 67 percent, “which is alarming,” Rose wrote.

The constantly changing workforce is “exhausting,” Rose wrote. “We must continually develop relationships with new staff, and educate staff who are filling in for those who have left. We are never sure who to contact for what issue. The excessive turnover undermines our confidence in the organization and makes it harder for us to keep our programs going.”

Rose said she took offense at Mehnert’s comments to the BDN that the “road has been made more complicated” because at least 75 percent of the agency’s workforce has a mental health diagnosis.

“This statement, blaming workplace problems on staff with mental health diagnoses, is highly stigmatizing no matter who says it, but coming from the CEO of NAMI Maine, it is completely inappropriate and merits a public apology,” Rose wrote, adding that it’s also not true. “NAMI Maine has hired, and lost, some of the most talented, hardworking and empathetic people I’ve ever met.”

Rose and others emphasized that NAMI Maine’s work is vital, and they want the agency to succeed. In recent weeks, some volunteers have told the board that the organization’s health should be a priority over keeping Mehnert at the helm.

“I will be very honest and frank. We do not need Jenna Mehnert as head of this organization. She’s done a lot of destruction. But we need NAMI Maine,” a former employee at the Nov. 8 meeting said to Hodgdon. She suggested the board reflect on its own governance, especially since “many people” have notified the board of problems with Mehnert’s management.

If current NAMI Maine board members are not comfortable doing their “due diligence,” they should resign, Morgan wrote. “A thorough, independent and transparent investigation of these allegations is the only way whatever ultimate actions taken by NAMI Maine will be viewed as credible.”

Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.