An interview with Sean Maloney, NAMI Seattle board member, Part 1

Sean Maloney graduated from Antioch University Seattle in 1987 with a master’s degree in Psychology. As a licensed mental health counselor, he provided in-home crisis intervention and therapy services to children at risk of being moved from their families. As program manager for Pediatric Interim Care Services, he oversaw a program serving drug-exposed infants and their families. Currently, Sean is self-employed and is a facilitator of Mental Health First Aid courses offered through Valley Cities Counseling. Prior to starting his own company, Sean was the Director of Clinical Training at Catholic Community Services of Western Washington. He served as a founding board member of Mi Casa, which provides low-income housing for families. He was a founding member of the Child Welfare Advocacy Coalition. Sean has also served on the DSHS Regional Advisory Council for Region Five and was a member of the Board of Directors of the Children’s Alliance. Sean joined the NAMI Seattle Board of Directors in January of 2020.


By: Lizabeth Llamas

Contributors: Andy Huynh, Zhoumeng Lin, Aurelia Jacquelinne, and, Jeremy Dale Candelaria

           The silence in my house was interrupted by an alarm, which signaled the start of class. I ran to my bedroom to turn off the continuous beeps. Silence filled my house once again. I decided to sit on my chair rather than my soft bed in hopes of mimicking the classroom setting I missed so much.

 As I joined the Zoom call, I was excited to see such a welcoming face. I have become accustomed to seeing black squares fill my screen. Our guest speaker, Sean Maloney, was wearing a dark-colored shirt that contrasted from his light-colored hair, softly combed to the side. As he introduced himself, I could not help but notice how enthusiastic he was. Every time he moved the blue reflection on his glasses would move along with him, emphasizing his movement as he spoke. The movement was even more prevalent when he spoke about his career, he would look up indicating that he was remembering the journey that brought him to where he is now. A smile always followed.

What do you hope to accomplish in your time with NAMI Seattle?

SM: Well, I’m really focused on education. And, but also, the other thing I want to do is grow NAMI Seattle. It is a very tiny organization, with only a few staff. We usually have seven staff; we are at six. We filled some positions, but my thing is to make it a little more robust and really get the word out about the importance of mental health in our communities. The other thing that is incredibly important to me was inspired by our last executive director, Muguette Guenneguez who reached out to BIPOC and the LGBTQ communities.

Was speaking about mental health something you always felt comfortable about?

SM: I would say so, maybe not in the family I grew up with. I grew up in an upper-middle-class white family. I don’t have any recollection of folks talking about that kind of stuff. Nobody talked about depression. As a matter of fact, the healthiest that I ever saw anybody do that growing up, and it sounds strange, was after my mother’s cousin committed suicide when I was in high school. Now I am from a very gregarious Irish catholic family, and we’re a little chaotic and loud. Wakes are not sad times; they are happy times where you celebrate the person’s life. That was the first wake that I attended that was incredibly quiet when we walked in. Although to the family’s credit, they did not try to hide the fact that he killed himself. Family members said that he came back from the war, raised a family, and did well in his business. They attributed his death to his experience as a soldier in World War II. I would say that talking about mental health was something I had to learn in graduate school.

How has your time as a program manager for Pediatric Interim Care services helped you with NAMI Seattle?

SM: Wow. Well, I would have to tell you that was one of my tougher jobs. The contract that we received was a statewide initiative, so let me tell you how politics intersects with services and, by the way, I also was a registered lobbyist in Olympia, so I didn’t mention that because that was just an add-on to my job. What happened with that contract, is that we had this huge problem in the state. CPS referrals and foster care referrals for infants who were being born exposed to drugs were rapidly increasing. At that time, the crack cocaine epidemic was in full swing. Sadly, it coincided with an increase in drug use of women of childbearing age. This would have been the late 80s early 90s.

As I understood it, with the way the contract was set is that the funding came from the state, the money went to DSHS headquarters where a RFP was opened for bids. A number of private agencies bid on it. We were one of the four successful bidders. After we got the contract the local CPS agency line staff were told to work with us on any cases which were referred to CPS due to the mother using drugs during her pregnancy. They did not have a whole lot of input into the process which created a lot of friction. It seemed that some line staff felt like we were stepping on their toes, so it was very difficult. We had to earn the trust of the staff at CPS. It took a lot of work, but what I learned was the importance of including people in the decision-making process. It is interesting, even if you have a great program with great ideas, you still have to work to create business relationships within that so that was number one. The other thing is, I had to do a lot of training, but I had not done a lot of training prior to that. This was such a new phenomenon with drug-exposed infants. Most of them would be not symptomatic, but the ones that end up in foster care were more likely to have symptoms. I had to do a lot of training with foster parents, and I learned how to train folks.

When I was a therapist, I worked with clients of all different incomes but when I did this contract, I discovered disproportionately people referred to child protective services tend to be poor, and part of the BIPOC community. I, as well as my foster parents, got our eyes opened to the incredibly ugly things happening to poor women of color in our society. Domestic violence, rape, and drug dealers using and abusing women were far too common. It was tough. As a matter of fact, the more I learned and the more I worked in that field, the more respect I gained for the women that we serve because frankly with the lives that they had lived so far, I think they had phenomenal resilience in that they even chose to wake up every day and deal with all the hardship in their lives. They lived with the results of intergenerational trauma due to the legacy of racism.

What are things that we could do to help spread awareness of mental health and educate people on what it means?

SM: One thing is Mental Health First Aid training is free in King County. We are one of the few counties that makes it free so you can contact Valley Cities if you go to their website. They create classes for free, so if you put the word out there, we want everybody to get this training and there are a couple of things that will do. It increases the community of people who can be supportive of folks living with mental health challenges. It not only gives them specific skills, but it also really creates a community of concern.

Isolation takes any challenge around mental health and makes it much worse. We want to see that folks get a broad community in which people support each other. Furthermore, nobody should be ashamed to say, “I’m living with bipolar disorder, or I have depression, or I’m in recovery from substance use disorder, or I’m struggling with substance use disorder right now”. We need to have a community that knows how to listen when people are ready to go towards treatment, but also creates an opening and accepting place for them. That is where I am at today. People need to be able to access treatment when they need it.

How have male figures influenced how you feel about mental health?

Sean: Well, that is interesting, I have been incredibly blessed. One of my parent’s best friends from Columbia University was Tommy. Tom D was a good friend of my parents who stayed involved with our families throughout our lives and he eventually became my mentor. Tommy had a severe drinking problem and severe depression for most of his life. I didn’t know that growing up, I didn’t know about his drinking problem because when he showed up, he was great fun but you had to follow him around because he would light a cigarette while he was drunk and then leave them all over the house so several kids were always running around trying to keep the house from burning down.

He did something for me that was incredibly powerful. It started, no later than freshman year in high school, if not junior high, he said something that has been incredibly valuable in my life. What he said was, “do what you love, because you spend most of the hours of your life doing it. pick a field that you love, do not just pick it because it makes money, although that is something you will have to consider, but do what you love”. I went to graduate school where I trained to be therapist and I love being a therapist. I just loved it, it was so powerful, the human interaction and it just felt like I had a gift for it.

In summarizing, I would say that Tommy’s advice still rings true as I love what I do and especially love serving on the NAMI board. Interestingly, Tommy was able to get treatment for both his depression and his substance use disorder. He went on to help dozens of people find recovery.

How has NAMI Seattle been educating males to feel more comfortable seeking mental health help?

Sean: I did not have an easy answer to that particular question. We have had some requests for male-only support groups and there seems to be a shortage of these. So, I am hoping to bring this up at our next meeting. I know that we have some peer counselor leaders who are men, but we do not have any groups specifically for men. If I had had more time, but I would be curious if we had a breakdown of gender for our support groups and our outreach. I wonder if we are not serving women disproportionately just because what we see is that women are more open to talking about mental health challenges than men are. So, that is going to be a conversation later at board meetings.

Why is it important that we educate males on the importance of seeking mental health?

Sean: Oh, good God, it is killing them. We are notorious for not going to doctors. We are notorious if we go to a doctor, we are more likely to resist a prescription and, by the way, even as a mental health therapist.

One of the challenges for men of my generation is many of us have been socialized, that it is not okay to be sad or depressed. Instead, it often comes out as anger. Angry men can do some self-destructive things, like drink too much. And drunk angry men can do some dumb things, many of which are self-destructive and destructive to society, so it is vitally important that we do a better job of reaching out to men. There are some great initiatives happening, I did some research, there is some work happening within the African American and Black communities, trying to hook folks up with therapists and trying to take away that stigma.

With all the experience Sean Maloney has received throughout his life, he has become motivated to expand NAMI Seattle by using his learned skills. He also emphasizes the idea that a person can never stop learning, which is one of the reasons he continues to discover new things. What he finds valuable in continuously acquiring new knowledge is that he will be able to help more people.

If you want to support NAMI Seattle, please consider joining or donating here.

This article is a collaborative piece written by a group of Business students from Professor Laura Umetsu’s Business Writing Course at the University of Washington Bothell School of Business.

Special thanks to Jasmine Bager for her assistance in coaching students in effective storytelling and volunteering her time to edit this piece.