October 23, 2013

New director hopes to expand role of Maine’s largest mental health group

Jenna Mehnert wants to ensure that NAMI Maine’s services and resources are available to both young and old.

By BETTY ADAMS Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — Jenna Mehnert brings impressive job credentials to her new role as executive director of NAMI Maine, formerly the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

click image to enlarge

Jenna Mehnert, 43, executive director of NAMI Maine, holds a master’s degree in social work and previously worked for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Most recently she was executive director of the New England Institute of Addiction Studies. Before that she headed the Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, and before that she worked with Pennsylvania Welfare Secretary Estelle Richman and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

NAMI Maine is a statewide membership organization that does much of the training about mental illness for such groups as law enforcement officers and teachers. It also provides resources, including information on how to access mental health providers, and supervises respite service providers. However, other than respite care, it does not provide direct services such as crisis intervention or counseling.

“We’re where families go to understand the mental health system and also for support and advocacy,” Mehnert said during a recent interview at NAMI Maine’s Augusta headquarters.

Not long after she started her new job, Mehnert heard praise for NAMI’s programs from other attendees of the Maine Suicide Prevention Program Tea at the Blaine House. NAMI Maine runs that program.

“It’s kind of humbling to encounter lots of people and hear how NAMI has had an influence on their lives,” she said.

Mehnert speaks rapidly and confidently about her new job and the organization’s direction, peppering her conversation with references to her experience in the other positions.

“We invest a lot of money in mental health and child welfare, but do we evaluate that to see if it is working?” she asked, adding, “How do you be smart about the limited dollars?”

She said she found that in her work with the Giuliani administration, “decisions were based on politics, not on what would work best in practice.”

Mehnert is also keen to see results and to ensure that mental health services and resources are available to everyone from young children to senior citizens.

Valerie Gamache, president of the NAMI Maine board of directors, said Mehnert had the legislative policy and operational experience the board was looking for in a new executive director.

“Her extensive background as an advocate, coupled with (a) proven skill set to work with and build collaboration among constituents, made her a clear choice for NAMI Maine,” Gamache said.

Mehnert, 43, who holds a master’s degree in social work, has been a service provider herself, working for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services in a child sex-abuse unit. She remains in contact with one of the children she befriended there years ago.

Mehnert started work for NAMI Maine Aug. 19, filling the role that Carol L. Carothers held for 14 years.

Mehnert relocated to Maine from Pennsylvania about a year ago when her husband, Andrew McCormack, took a job as an assistant U.S. attorney in Maine. Previously he was a trial attorney with the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section of the U.S. Department of Justice.

“I’m delighted to get back,” she said. Mehnert and her family live in Orono, and she was recently elected to the school board there. Two of her three children attend the same grade school she went to, and her daughter is a freshman in high school.

Mehnert resigned her post on the board of the Autism Society of Maine when she took the new job. Her son Jacob has autism spectrum disorder, and she understands a family’s need for respite care when a child has special needs.

NAMI Maine has a number of affiliates within Maine, concentrated largely in the southern half of the state. Mehnert wants to see some more affiliates – a direction the board encourages – and has started spending a day a week in the southern Maine area and a day in the more northern end of the state.

Mehnert has gotten used to a few things around the organization’s headquarters in a former bank building with limited parking on Cony Circle in Augusta. “We still have a vault,” she said.

Membership in NAMI Maine is $3 per person, and the organization’s $1.1 million annual budget is supported by foundations, government grants and state contracts as well as an annual walk, which took place last week in Portland and brought in about $150,000.

For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012, the organization reported almost $1.2 million in revenue and $981,416 in expenses.

Betty Adams can be contacted at 621-5631 or at:

badams@centralmaine.com

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