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: BDN composite photo

Fifty-two former employees, board members, current and past volunteers and community members sent a letter to the NAMI Maine board of directors last week to express their strong disapproval of the nonprofit’s leader, mounting pressure for the board to address allegations that Jenna Mehnert’s “abusive” management style has caused rampant turnover at the agency.

The letter also urged officials with NAMI’s national organization, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, to conduct “a thorough assessment” of the Maine chapter’s board of directors because of their failure to adequately respond to complaints about Mehnert that employees raised for years.

The call to action comes as the state’s most prominent mental health advocacy agency has undertaken a series of steps to look into the workplace conditions that 15 former employees described in an Oct. 30 Bangor Daily News investigation of Mehnert’s treatment of staff.

Most recently, the board voted to place Mehnert on administrative leave in late November.

Since she was hired in 2013, Mehnert has “demonstrated an impetuous temperament that has seriously damaged both employee morale and NAMI Maine’s credibility and relationships within our Maine communities,” according to the letter, which was sent to NAMI Maine’s board on Nov. 30.

The BDN article featured “just a small subset of these behaviors,” the letter said, noting that everyone who signed it either experienced or witnessed Mehnert’s “fear-based tactics” and “abusive conduct” firsthand.

A few of them also spoke to BDN for the Oct. 30 story, which reported that Mehnert handed down unpredictable reprimands, spoke down to employees and criticized them behind their backs, and created such a demoralizing workplace that people often left to preserve their own mental health. The Nov. 30 letter cast itself as a vote of “no confidence” in Mehnert’s leadership and included the names of 64 people who left the agency during her time at the helm.

The turnover is “the most striking evidence of Ms. Mehnert’s failure as a leader,” they wrote. But they also singled out a comment she made to a reporter as an especially offensive example of why she is unfit for her role. Mehnert denied she ever created a hostile work environment, saying she inherited organizational problems, and the road was “made more complicated” by her employees’ own mental health struggles.

“We are appalled that the leader of an organization which purports to fight stigma would use former employees’ mental health status to disqualify their complaints,” the letter states. “Such conduct is simply not appropriate in any workplace, let alone the largest mental health advocacy entity in the state.”

In response to the Oct. 30 article, the board hired an outside attorney, Erik Peters, to look into the experiences of former staff. In recent weeks, he has started setting up interviews.

However, NAMI Maine’s board did not immediately place Mehnert on administrative leave while the lawyer conducted his probe nor issue a public statement on the story. The inaction drew backlash from volunteers who help run the agency’s network of community-based services.

Four days after the BDN published a follow-up story based on two letters from volunteers voicing their criticism, the board voted during a Nov. 22 meeting to place Mehnert on leave pending the outcome of the investigation. Six board members supported the move, while board president Amy Hodgdon and Bob Reed, a past board president, voted against it.

“The decision follows standard practice for organizations in the process of third party assessments,” Hodgdon said in an email. “The NAMI Maine Board of Directors came to this decision based on numerous factors.”

The 52 people who wrote to the board voiced concern about the board’s handling of the situation. The signers began to organize themselves in the wake of the reporting. They are 27 former employees, some of whom still volunteer with the organization; 12 past or current volunteers; four former board members; one parent who had a poor interaction with Mehnert; and eight people who partner with NAMI Maine in the mental health field.

They highlighted a comment Hodgdon made in an article, when she said Mehnert’s actions have always been “in the best interest of the agency.”

“This characterization is completely at odds with the experiences we have had, and suggests at minimum deception by Ms. Mehnert, and at worst outright negligence on the part of the Board,” they wrote.

More importantly, the board’s failure to respond to complaints about Mehnert over the years suggests a “lack of process in place to hold leadership accountable” and the need for “outside action” to “ensure NAMI Maine’s continued organizational health.”

“We believe strongly in the power, passion and transformative impact of NAMI programs for individuals and families, but we can no longer sit idly by and let our NAMI State Organization fail to live up to its full potential due to unfit leadership,” the letter concluded.

Hogdgon, the board’s president, deferred to the board’s meeting minutes when asked for her response to the letter. An agenda for its meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 8, shows the board discussed the letter, but the minutes were not immediately available.

Callie Ferguson

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