In 2014, Mary Ellen Benson joined the NAMI Colorado Springs board of directors because she was passionate about starting more conversations about mental health. Little did she realize the impact that would have on her own family.
It’s not as though Mary Ellen was throwing her loved ones a huge curveball with her board membership; after all, she’s worked at AspenPointe since 2010, where she’s now vice president of community relations and business development. But when it comes to mental illness, she says, “There wasn’t conversation or really even awareness of it, on both sides of my family.” At least, not until she asked her mom, husband, kids, in-laws and others to come to the NAMI breakfast.
“That really did a lot to compel their acknowledgment that we all have family members living with mental illness, yet people weren't talking about it,” she says.
Now her clan comes to the NAMI fundraiser every year, many of them driving down from Boulder (where Mary Ellen spent her teenage years).
“It's been an avenue to open up conversations that may have never happened,” she says. “My daughter even sang a song at one of the NAMI breakfasts that she had written about her own kind of day-in, day-out struggles with just living. Living as a teenager is hard. I'm not sure if she would have felt the freedom or the voice to do that, had it not been normalized and part of my family.”
After six years as board secretary, Mary Ellen is cycling off due to term limits. Her departure means the loss of a great colleague and a gifted strategic thinker. (Consider: Before AspenPointe, Mary Ellen served for six years as HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital CEO, a position she earned at age 33.) So as a final board request, we asked Mary Ellen last week to share her thoughts about where NAMI’s been, and where it should go.
How much did you know about NAMI when you joined the board?
I really didn't know that much. I was overseeing an arm of AspenPointe where we were working a lot with the military. … Someone came in with, probably, a first-episode psychosis situation — kind of a young kid — and a clinician was trying to connect this family with NAMI. And I was like, "Tell me more.” Once she relayed its purpose, then NAMI started to pop up all over the place.
When Lori [Jarvis-Steinwert, executive director], and Dan [Zarecky, former board president] asked me to join, my biggest push at the time was addressing the stigma around mental illness in the community. And there still is stigma — hear me that this has not been solved — but it was so brutal, particularly in the schools. This was before the rash of suicides. It was so not known for kids to say, "Oh, I'm going to therapy," or, "I'm going to my counseling appointment.”
I also felt like there was such a disconnect between the business community and what was really going on within their organizations, with mental health challenges.
So what got you excited about being a board member? Where did you see opportunity?
It was pretty early on in that journey that we started participating in the National Dialogue on Mental Health. That was probably one of my proudest moments of really feeling like I was part of the community and trying to bring awareness to mental health.
I was coming at it from a provider perspective. There wasn't this connection with users and providers and the community, a space of just honest, humble, open dialogue. It was usually providers versus users.
I loved that work; that was an incredible campaign that we did.
At the same time, we were also trying to move out of a working-board model into a governance board. It was really nice to be able to bring a voice forward that said, "We've got to figure out our business model, we've got to figure out sustainability.”
You've long been active on boards. How have you decided which boards to get involved with?
For me to give my time and energy to something, I need to feel personally connected and inspired by the work, and know that the goal of the organization is to make a difference.
When I was on the American Heart Association board, we were doing a lot of work around awareness of women and their “Go Red For Women” campaign. I just really believed that there was so much focus on breast cancer awareness, and yet stroke and heart disease has such a huge impact on women, and we weren't even able to get the word out.
Ironically, when I was a board member, my dad died of a sudden heart attack. That was a life-changing experience for me. He was a marathon runner, he didn't show any signs or symptoms, he was on no medications. His healthy lifestyle probably prolonged his life despite genetic heart issues. But it was one of those things that I could feel really proud of and say, "I would like you guys to support the Heart Association in honor of him."
It's been a similar journey with NAMI, honestly.
What’s your take on how NAMI and AspenPointe complement each other?
AspenPointe has been in the community for a long time, over 150 years. NAMI is newer. And yet, we're both trying to work with folks who have had struggles for years upon years. How I've worked with trying to bring together NAMI and AspenPointe is asking, "How do we tell the story, and put a human face on people living with mental illness and their families?"
We've been able to partner through some unique programs, like our Creative Expressions Art Therapy program, some of our programs with our peers, some of our programs around recovery.
If you were referring somebody from AspenPointe to NAMI, and they didn’t know anything about NAMI, what would you say about it?
I think the biggest thing is, "You're not alone. There are people just like you who can talk with you and help you understand how they've gone through their own journeys.”
I've said to Lori so many times, "You can't separate the clinical provider side from the peer, or personal experience, side. If you try to, providers are going to fail.” Because you can only give folks health intervention one hour a week, whatever it is, and people are living this journey for the remainder: days, weeks, years.
It's kind of like going to your primary care doctor who you see twice a year, and they tell you, "Lose 50 pounds, stop smoking, don't drink soda, start exercising.” In order to tackle any one of those things, you've got to find peer groups or support avenues. So what you might learn in therapy is made real, breathing and living through NAMI.
"What you might learn in therapy is made real,
breathing and living through NAMI."
Even though so much is uncertain right now, do you have a sense of what a healthy NAMI might look like in five or 10 years?
I think there's going to have to be some private-public-nonprofit partnerships, and leveraging of resources to really further shared missions.
Over time, particularly as we go through COVID and we have a recession and all of these pieces, we're going to have to look for other opportunities for revenue. So what does that look like? Can NAMI start to leverage the business community so that business and human resource programs are partnering in a financial sort of way?
I think the shift is going to have to be moving upstream into a prevention or early intervention model. If you look at the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association and some of these different illness-based organizations, they've all moved a lot more into health/wellness/prevention types of platforms. It’s about intervening early to help people stay as healthy as they can.
What else would you want to say about your experience with NAMI or about the organization that you feel people should know?
You can't go through a journey with NAMI without giving credit and love and acknowledgment to Lori. She's just, day in, day out, really helping change this conversation in our community. And I do think the people involved in NAMI — the volunteers, the board members, the staff — are a special group.