AUGUSTA — Legislative action is needed to protect workers visitors at Riverview Psychiatric Center, speakers said during a forum Wednesday night on the state’s mental health system.

Advocates and government officials also cited a need for more support services in communities and more hospital beds for people with severe, persistent mental illness.

The forum at the University of Maine at Augusta featured Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew and Riverview Superintendent Mary Louise McEwen. It was attended by more than 70 people, including legislators and Augusta city officials. State Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, organized the event but did not weigh in on what should be done.

After the panelists discussed the challenges in the state’s mental health system, Riverview nurse Carlton Spotswood approached the microphone and urged passage of a law to protect health care workers from violence.

Spotswood said his wife is a Riverview employee who was stabbed by a patient with a pen in March, an incident that touched off renewed attention of the hospital’s safety procedures.

Spotswood said most other states have laws that protect health care workers from violence by enacting greater penalties for assaults.

“We don’t come to work to get assaulted,” he said. “We’re not punching bags. We’re not getting paid for that.”

Spotswood said he has tried to pursue charges when he’s been assaulted at work, with no success, and that violent patients don’t take possible penalties seriously.

Joe Fitzpatrick, associate commissioner of the Department of Corrections, said the expanded mental health ward that will open at Maine State Prison in February will accept patients who are too violent for Riverview or county jails. However, it will not accept people who are committed to Riverview, such as people who have been found not competent to stand trial.

Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney called for legislative action to address the fact that someone who has been found not competent to stand trial must be released from Riverview if they’re not an imminent threat to anyone. No one has been released and committed another crime, she said, but it could happen.

Maloney also more support and treatment services should be available for people before they commit a crime while suffering from mental illness.

Most people with severe mental illness are able to function well if they receive the proper treatment, said Robert Anderson, medical director from Kennebec Behavior Health. But sometimes, he said, hospitalization is necessary, and there aren’t enough beds available.

Mayhew said her department is working to identify a range of performance measures to evaluate the state’s mental health system. She cautioned against looking at the number of beds in isolation.

Augusta police Chief Robert Gregoire pointed out that people without mental illness commit terrible crimes, and people with mental illness are often victims of theft, sexual assault and other crimes.

“We seem to forget that,” he said. “We tend to view these people as outcasts and perpetrators.”

Susan McMillan can be contacted at 621-5645 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @s_e_mcmillan

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