LEWISTON — Patient assaults on health care providers have “more than doubled” over the past few years, according to head of psychiatry for St. Mary’s Health.

It is yet another example of the pandemic’s strain on health care workers. The demand for mental health care services has skyrocketed during the pandemic, Dr. Michael Kelley said, while the workforce has shrunk.

More adults than ever before have reported symptoms of anxiety and depression during the pandemic. But it is more difficult than ever to find a provider without sitting on a waiting list for months. That’s led to more patients — with more acute behavioral health needs — to show up at emergency departments like the one at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston.

“Many group homes that house patients with behavioral health issues have closed, and the ones that are still operating are filled to capacity and not able to accept more patients,” Kelley said.

“When group homes close, many shift the patients to hospital emergency rooms that are already full. If the patient is not sick enough to be admitted to the St. Mary’s inpatient behavioral unit and they do not have a home, they stay in the ER and we try to find a placement,” Kelley said.

Over the course of the pandemic, St. Mary’s emergency department went from an average of eight to 10 psychiatric patient visits per day to about 18.


St. Mary’s has two emergency departments: one general and one behavioral.

And those patients have to wait an average of 36 to 72 hours in the department for a placement, either on the hospital’s general psychiatric unit or elsewhere. Prior to the pandemic, the average wait time was eight hours.

And sometimes, those patients get violent with hospital staff.

Violent incidents where a patient assaults a staff member have become more frequent and more serious, Kelley said. Some staff members have suffered broken bones and concussions.

“It has a dramatic impact on us,” he said.

Steve Littleson, president and CEO of Central Maine Healthcare, said in a brief statement Friday evening that an “epidemic of violence in our hospitals is yet another crisis health care workers deal with every day.”


CMH is the parent company of Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston.

Littleson said this issue “takes an enormous toll” on hospital staff and deserves more attention. He did not say if there had been any incidents at CMMC involving staff.

“It’s a complex situation that requires the best problem-solving and collaborative efforts of all the stakeholders in this space,” Littleson said, but stopped short of providing any details.

Nurses at Maine’s largest hospital, Maine Medical Center in Portland, protested what they said are unsafe working conditions in the emergency department.

Maine Medical Center nurses are members of the Maine arm of the National Nurses United union. Todd Ricker, the lead labor negotiator for the Maine State Nurses Association, told the Portland Press Herald earlier this week that emergency department nurses are “experiencing extreme workplace violence.”

“They have been kicked, hit, spit upon and concussed at the hands of patients they are there to care for,” he said.


The patients responsible are there for psychiatric issues, Ricker said.

On Friday, Maine Medical Center officials agreed to increase staffing in the emergency department to protect nurses.

Nurses at St. Mary’s and CMMC are not unionized. St. Mary’s spokesperson Steve Costello declined a request to interview a nurse there.

Kelley, the psychiatry chief, said St. Mary’s has instituted additional training programs for staff on how to protect themselves and how to recognize a potentially dangerous situation. The hospital is also looking to hire more security officers and station officers in “areas that are more visible.”

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