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

Advocates and government officials also spoke of 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 top officials, including Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew and Riverview Superintendent Mary Louise McEwen, and it was attended by more than 70 people, including legislators and Augusta city officials. State Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, organized the talk 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 mic 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, some of them by instituting greater penalties for assaults against health care workers.

“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, but they would not take some of the 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. Not yet has anyone been released and then committed another crime, she said, but it could happen.

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

Most people with severe mental illness are able to function well and safely in a community, if they receive the proper treatment, said Robert Anderson, medical director from Kennebec Behavior Health.

But sometimes, Anderson said, hospitalization is necessary, and there aren’t enough beds available. He said a few months ago, a patient of his had to camp out in an emergency room for a week while waiting for a bed to open up in a psychiatric unit.

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.

“If our crisis system was meeting at the highest level of performance, if those services along the recovery part of the continuum were meeting our measures of performance, then what would that mean as we then evaluate our capacity and whether we have the right number of in-patient psychiatric beds?” she said.

There was also much discussion at the forum about protection employee and public safety.

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 — 621-5645 smcmillan@centralmaine.com Twitter: @s_e_mcmillan