AUGUSTA — A panel of experts will discuss the state’s mental health system and take questions at a forum Wednesday at the University of Maine at Augusta.
Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, will host the forum, spurred by events related to Riverview Psychiactric Center, where a patient seriously injured an employee in the spring. The hospital, which is the state’s only mental health facility for patients who commit crimes, stands to lose an estimated $20 million in federal funding because of problems with governance, overcrowding and safety.
Representatives of state government, the courts and mental health providers will speak at the forum, which is scheduled for 7 to 9 p.m. in Jewett Hall at UMA.
“While everyone seems to agree that the treatment of mental illness is a critical safety-net function of government, there is no clear consensus on how to provide it and how to resolve competing issues of patient treatment rights and public safety,” Katz said in a statement announcing the forum.
The panelists will be Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew; Riverview Superintendent Mary Louise McEwen; Joe Fitzpatrick, director of treatment for the Department of Corrections; Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney; superior court Justice Michaela Murphy; Helen Bailey, general counsel for the Maine Disability Rights Center; and Robert Anderson, medical director for Kennebec Behavioral Health.
The panelists will talk about how the state’s mental health system is doing and how it could be improved, and then they will take questions from the audience. In the statement, Katz said he hopes participants will come away with a better understanding of the challenges and how to address them.
The Department of Health and Human Services is appealing the federal government’s termination of funding for Riverview, and a law passed by the Legislature during a special session in August will allow the transfer of some patients to an expanded psychiactric ward at the Maine State Prison in Warren.
Riverview treats people with violent mental illness, patients committed to state custody after being found not responsible for criminal offenses and people who are being examined for their competency to stand trial.
The effect of the mental health system — including Riverview, group homes for mentally ill people and other agencies and providers located in Augusta — on public safety and the larger community in Augusta is a longstanding concern of city officials here.
Ward 3 City Councilor Pat Paradis said aspects of the system, such as decisions about releasing patients from Riverview and into group homes in the community, give more consideration to patient rights than public safety, and he thinks there should be more supervision for people who are released.
There’s a disproportionate number of people with mental illness in Augusta, Paradis said, because the treatment and support services they need are available here but not in their hometowns.
“The federal and state governments are not funding the support system that is needed for these patients,” Paradis said. “Too many of them are left on their own to tackle life. The great majority are able to cope, and there are no incidents in the community; but there are some who find it very difficult, and the funding isn’t there so that there is enough supervision of their activities.”
Although no city officials are on the UMA forum panel, Paradis said he knows Maloney and Katz, who was Augusta’s previous mayor, are familiar with their concerns and would be able to discuss them at the forum.