The National Alliance on Mental Illness office in Hallowell is pictured on Oct. 29 (left) and Jenna Mehnert is pictured in this undated photo. Credit: Composite photo

In the last year and a half, about two-thirds of staff members of Maine’s most prominent mental health advocacy organization left the agency because its leader fostered a “toxic” work environment, according to interviews with 15 former employees and an additional employee’s resignation letter.

Jenna Mehnert, the chief executive officer of NAMI Maine, which runs a network of resources to support people with mental illnesses and raises awareness of mental health issues, 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.

At least two former employees complained to the nonprofit’s board of directors in the last eight months to share their concerns about how Mehnert treats staff. Mehnert is the reason for the agency’s “clear and undeniable pattern of high turnover,” wrote a former staff member in the most recent, Sept. 16, complaint. The person urged the board to investigate Mehnert’s management.

The complaint named 17 people who have left the organization since March 2018. NAMI Maine, a chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, employs between 20 to 25 people at its office in Hallowell, former staff said. Its work is primarily funded by government grants, according to its website.

In response, NAMI Maine’s board of directors said it would hire an outside consultant to evaluate the culture of the organization, according to a Sept. 23 email to staff.

“When trying to problem solve with Jenna or think critically about the work we do, I have frequently been met with aggressive, unprofessional and emotionally abusive communication,” which has resulted in “a culture of fear of speaking up about frustrations, asking clarifying questions, or brainstorming,” wrote the former staff member in the most recent complaint to the board.

“Jenna fosters a toxic work environment and manages staff in such a demoralizing manner that I have seen many leave this organization in order to preserve their own mental health, including myself,” said the former staff member, whom the Bangor Daily News is not naming because the person declined to be interviewed.

A former employee decided to share the complaint with the BDN because of how the board addressed it with staff internally. The former employee was unsure anything would change as a result of the consultant’s review.

“We want to be clear that we hold Jenna accountable for the performance of each one of you,” the executive committee wrote to NAMI Maine staff when it announced it would evaluate the agency’s culture.

“We also want the staff to know that every year we evaluate Jenna on her performance and over the [last] seven years, her performance reviews have been exceptional. She holds a difficult role, but her actions are always in the best interest of the agency,” the committee’s letter concluded.

In a phone interview, Mehnert said she had never created a hostile work environment, “could not legally comment” on employees’ performance, and warned against any story built on “people’s perceptions.” After abruptly ending the phone call, she did not respond to a list of emailed follow-up questions, instead writing to say that her leadership style should be judged by the results of NAMI Maine, “not by some employees who did not come to me or the board to work through their challenges.”

The roles at NAMI Maine are both “intellectually and emotionally challenging,” she wrote in an email, and she holds people to high professional standards. At the same time, the “road has been made more complicated” because at least 75 percent of the agency’s workforce has a mental health diagnosis.

“As the agency becomes stronger,” she wrote, “it appears some former staff have decided to attack me rather than turn the focus inward to examine how their constant gossiping and lack of professional accountability were the actual barrier to what we are building now.”

The 15 former employees spoke to the BDN because they said they believed the organization’s turmoil both hampered and contradicted its important mission to help thousands of Maine people living with mental illness. Their time at the agency ranged from 2013, the year Mehnert was hired, to this summer — one of them quit after only two weeks because of tension in the office. The BDN also reviewed the resignation letter of an additional former employee who was not interviewed.

“The turnover at NAMI is nothing I have EVER witnessed in my 30 years of working anywhere,” one former employee wrote in an email to the president of the board last month, after the Sept. 16 complaint. “I have seen some of the most talented individuals treated so poorly by the [executive director] and completely drained of any energy to push back or advocate for themselves.”

All but three people agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation from Mehnert. However, they provided emails, human resources documents, text messages and audio recordings to corroborate their experiences. One former staff member shared more than 30 pages of memos documenting her troubling interactions with Mehnert in her final eight months at the organization and after she left.

The BDN has only written about conduct that the newspaper could corroborate with multiple people or documentation.

Mehnert twice shut down conversations in an intimidating way with Katie Morin, who worked at NAMI Maine’s Waterville Peer Recovery Center from the fall of 2018 to the following spring, she said. In her role, Morin served as a liaison between the center and the organization’s central office, and drew on her experience with anxiety to support her clients, or “peers,” doing activities such as cooking meals and creating art projects.

In one instance, on May 30, 2019, Mehnert met with members of the peer center to discuss the hiring process to replace Morin’s supervisor, who had just resigned. During the discussion, Morin asked her boss why candidates were required to hold a bachelor’s degree, posing it as a follow-up question on behalf of someone in the room, she said.

Wary of her boss’ response, Morin began recording what happened on her phone. At first, Mehnert replied calmly that the two should talk in private. But, when Morin pushed back, Mehnert stood up from her chair, walked across the room, and said, “OK Katie, let’s have a conversation,” according to the recording. Her boss was within inches of her face as the group looked on, Morin said.

Their tense confrontation continued for about seven minutes. Mehnert said she didn’t think it was professional for Morin to ask those sorts of questions in front of others, referring to two other times she thought Morin asked a question at an inappropriate moment. Morin replied that she didn’t feel safe speaking to Mehnert in private “because of the way things are handled.”

“I’m not trying to challenge, I’m inquiring,” Morin told her boss.

A week later, eight members of the peer center who watched the interaction emailed Mehnert their disapproval. “We do not expect, nor will we tolerate, anyone, staff, member or visitor being treated in the angry, confrontational and shaming manner in which you treated Katie,” they wrote.

Their communication never improved. On June 17, Mehnert emailed Morin to set up a “clearing conversation” the next day, but Morin said it was her day off, and she couldn’t meet that week. Mehnert then told Morin it was a condition of her continued employment to meet with her and Shelley O’Brian, the vice president of finance and operations, on her day off.

Morin decided to resign, a decision she described as deeply painful. A year passed before she regained the confidence to work in the mental health field again.

“When [Mehnert] is unchallenged and in control, she’s at her best. As a leader, people will follow her,” said O’Brian, who, as a member of senior management, worked closely with Mehnert for nearly her entire six years at NAMI Maine. “On the flipside, when she feels threatened, or her reputation is challenged, her ability to control her emotions and regulate her responses just goes away.”

O’Brian joined the agency in 2013 and resigned in February. Soon after, on Feb. 21, she complained to the board’s president, Amy Hodgdon, in a phone call to report that Mehnert disregarded professional boundaries and disciplined employees “inequitably” when they got on Mehnert’s bad side, she said. The phone call with Hodgdon lasted about 30 minutes, according to a screenshot of O’Brian’s call log. (Other former staff also had complaints about O’Brian and said her deteriorating relationship with Mehnert fueled tension in the office.)

Hodgdon was sympathetic but said she wasn’t sure how to handle the complaint and would look into it, according to O’Brian, who also offered to put her in touch with others who felt the same way. The board did not follow up with O’Brian, she said.

“Any concerns brought to the Board by previous staff have been respectfully evaluated and discussed with Ms. Mehnert in an effort to implement new approaches intended to build a stronger entity,” Hodgdon said in a statement.

Staff frequently had positive first impressions of Mehnert. Some have only ever had a good relationship with her.

“When I started my employment here I was not the most mentally well. Jenna took a chance with me and believed in me,” said Nicole Foster, director of peer services. Mehnert supported her both personally and professionally, helping her to seek therapy and eventually promoted her, she said.

But other staff felt demoralized over time, 12 of them said in interviews or resignation letters, and noticed Mehnert would reprimand or write them up for perceived slights once they did something that made them feel like a target. The turnover meant people took on additional work or roles they were unfamiliar with, five former staff said, providing more opportunities for Mehnert or their direct supervisor to write them up. Mehnert didn’t always give clear directions but would “lambast” staff when their work “wasn’t to her liking,” one woman said.

One former staff member wrote in a 2017 resignation email to Mehnert that she had never quit a job without giving notice, but she could no longer “spend another day in such a hostile environment.” (She did not speak to the BDN, but another employee provided a copy of the email.)

“I came into this agency as a fully-functioning, capable woman and I am not leaving in the same condition that I came,” the former staff member wrote. “You consistently assign unrealistic expectations, demonstrate insensitivity to staff, bend rules when it suits your needs and show that you are incapable of accepting criticism.”

Lynne Schmidt, a part-time family respite manager, quit in February after saying she could no longer tolerate how stressful work had become. In 2019, Mehnert “cornered me and basically yelled at me as though I was a child” at the organization’s annual conference, after Mehnert learned Schmidt had received permission to sell copies of her poetry at the event, Schmidt said. She spent half an hour crying in the bathroom of the Augusta Civic Center before going onstage to give a presentation about the intersection of poetry and mental health, she said.

Only working 25 hours a week, “the things they were trying to get me to do were impossible with that time slot,” she said. “I got written up for things I was never trained to do.”

Another former employee, who asked to remain anonymous, also received what she described as confusing reprimands. She began keeping track of troubling moments in a Microsoft Word document, to string together many small incidents and patterns.

In one instance, on April 13, Mehnert called the former employee and, to her surprise, accused her of being “insubordinate” and “treating everyone like an idiot,” according to an entry from that day. By then, employees had started working from home because of the pandemic.

First, Mehnert didn’t like that the employee told a coworker she didn’t want to get “yelled at again” by Mehnert and so had asked a coworker for help understanding the requirements of a grant. The woman had been referring to an interaction with Mehnert the previous month, when Mehnert scolded the woman for apparently being too critical in her feedback on a draft of a grant application. Mehnert had told her to not “challenge” her and told her she was “honestly getting annoyed,” according to a screenshot of the email exchange.

Mehnert also cited the employee for asking another supervisor for clarification about a form, as well as for texting coworkers to ask if they had to work during an April snowstorm.

Alarmed and confused, the employee began to cry. She had no idea why any of the examples constituted insubordination, she wrote in a memo entry. Later, Mehnert followed up with an email to explain that she “wanted to understand your thought pattern behind questioning my directives or challenging the directives” of another superior. Mehnert later told the employee that her conversations with coworkers that undermined the agency had “been so devastatingly disappointing to me,” a response that the woman wrote was “insulting and inaccurate.”

The woman emailed Mehnert her three weeks’ notice on April 25. During the woman’s last week of work, she was prohibited from speaking to anyone other than Mehnert, two other supervisors and an employee she supervised.

Mehnert did not answer a follow-up question from the BDN about whether she had ever responded to feedback by changing her management style. Instead she said she had “no further comment or willingness to interact” with the reporter, that she had “always been found to operate inside the law,” and that the “decision to make a story out of some disgruntled employees is both careless and exploitative.”

She added that, in her seven years at NAMI Maine, three employees sought unemployment benefits after they departed the organization “and attempted to place responsibility for their departure on my accountability focused management style suggesting I was too direct or hostile,” she wrote. She won all three cases, she said, because staff did not show any evidence that she “did anything other than hold them accountable to the expectations of being an employee.”

That doesn’t mean the workplace was welcoming, according to 16 former staff. The employee who wrote memos noted in February that Mehnert referred to other employees as “incompetent” in meetings. Another former employee who resigned over the summer recalled comforting a coworker after Mehnert criticized the woman for using a “little baby voice” during a NAMI Maine training.

Four people independently recalled one moment in the summer of 2018 that stunned them. Mehnert walked out of her office, told two women who were dating each other that they were fired, handed them termination letters, didn’t allow them to collect their belongings and then locked the front doors behind them — in front of multiple people — according to the women who were let go and another woman who witnessed it. Another employee said he could hear it happening from another part of the office.

Mehnert told the board of directors she terminated the women for their unprofessional behavior in the office. Regardless of whether they should have been fired, four former employees felt there was a double standard because Mehnert hadn’t been professional in the way she handled the terminations.

Those who left were “painted as betrayers,” said a former male employee who used to manage the organization’s helpline. Or Mehnert would suggest their mental health played a role, four people said. “The narrative when they left: They couldn’t hack it,” the male employee said. In his exit interview, he suggested NAMI Maine had a “culture of fear,” but Mehnert did not acknowledge her role in creating it, instead insisting that “employees create culture.”

One woman who quit abruptly after only seven months as the organization’s mental health program manager wrote in her April 17 resignation letter that she was not “being assessed or treated fairly, or with understanding.” The stress had taken a toll on her physical health, resulting in weight loss, an increase in her blood pressure and an inability to sleep, “as well as a deterioration of my mental well-being with an increase in stress, anxiety and depression,” she wrote.

Instead of following up with her about her concerns, Mehnert texted her a few days after she quit to criticize her for “bashing staff to other staff,” according to a screenshot of the text. The woman said she didn’t know what Mehnert was talking about.

Mehnert may have received positive performance evaluations from the board, but, from staff, they were mixed.

“On good days, Jenna is a ray of sunshine and she is amazing to watch work,” one staff member wrote in an anonymous survey on Mehnert’s job performance last October. But she “tends to react inappropriately and emotionally,” another wrote. She is known to “target employees which at times can make this a hostile, toxic, or unhealthy work environment,” according to someone else. A former employee shared the survey results with the BDN.

At least three people complained to the board of directors prior to the more recent complaints this year.

Hodgdon did not respond to specific questions but said the board has taken recent steps to “strengthen work culture” by hiring the consultant and changing how staff roles are organized.

“Over the past 7 years of her leadership, Ms. Mehnert has done the challenging work of rebuilding an entity that struggled with infrastructure and accountability,” she wrote. Her positive performance reviews are based on her oversight of new programs and her service on boards and panels, she said.

Personnel complaints are handled by the board’s executive committee, according to its bylaws. While Mehnert said that the board “has always been informed of the struggles at the agency to a much greater degree than normally expected,” three former board members — Martha Green, Steve Hessert and Shawn Yardley — said the full board didn’t discuss personnel issues, including complaints against Mehnert.

Betsy Rose served a three-year term on the board from 2016 to 2019, and said she heard from some staff who were “suffering.” Until last month, Rose also served as the president of NAMI Maine’s Bangor affiliate, so she had more interaction with staff than others.

When she asked Mehnert to explain the organization’s turnover at board meetings, Mehnert discussed how social service agencies have high rates of turnover, Rose said. Rose also approached some board members individually, but they were “reluctant” to act because of previous difficult personnel matters involving NAMI Maine staff. They seemed unwilling “to go through that again,” she said.

“NAMI Maine was operationally not strong when I started in 2013 after multiple criminal acts had been committed by staff,” Mehnert, who holds a master’s degree in social work, wrote to the BDN. “It has been a long and intentional road to get NAMI to a strong place.”

In 2012, an employee was arrested at NAMI Maine’s old office in Augusta, where he had used his work computer to access child pornography. He was convicted of possessing and making child pornography, and sexually assaulting two boys under the age of 12.

In 2008, a bookkeeper went to prison for embezzling more than $250,000 from the organization.

Indeed, even people who left NAMI Maine on poor terms said they struggled with what to do about their experiences because they didn’t want to harm the organization’s mission.

One former employee who resigned in June 2019 even sympathized with the board’s position. “I completely understand the difficulty in managing complaints regarding the [executive director] but I also know that turnover of this magnitude can not go unnoticed nor continue to be explained away,” the woman wrote in an email to Hodgdon, the board president, last month.

“I sincerely hope you and the full board consider a change of leadership before any other employees are subjected to such an abusive leadership style,” she went on. “I will always stand firm in support of [NAMI’s] mission but I can no longer stand by and watch this organization bleed to death.”

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Callie Ferguson

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.