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Learning Disability Service

Mental Health Act

The Mental Health Act (1983) is the main piece of legislation that covers the assessment, treatment and rights of people with a mental health disorder.


In most cases, when people are treated in hospital or another mental health facility, they have agreed or volunteered to be there. You may be referred to as a "voluntary patient."


However, there are cases when a person can be detained (also known as sectioned) under the Mental Health Act (1983) and treated without their agreement. The Mental Health Act (1983) is the main piece of legislation that covers the assessment, treatment and rights of people with a mental health disorder.


People detained under the Mental Health Act need urgent treatment for a mental health disorder and are at risk of harm to themselves or others. See our guidance about how to deal with a mental health crisis or emergency.



Advice for carers and families

If your loved one has been detained, he or she will have to stay in hospital until the doctors or a mental health tribunal decide otherwise (read "Appealing against being detained").


You still have the right to visit. Visiting arrangements depend on the hospital, so check visiting hours with staff or on the hospital website. In some cases, the patient may refuse visitors, and hospital staff will respect the patient's wishes. If you are unable to see your relative, staff should explain why.


With permission from your relative, doctors may discuss the treatment plan with you. You can also raise concerns or worries with the doctors and nurses on the ward.


Hospital accommodation should be age- and gender-appropriate. Not all hospitals will be able to offer a ward dedicated to each gender, but all should at least offer same-sex toilets and wash facilities.


For more information:



Who decides that someone should be detained?

In emergencies

An emergency is when someone seems to be at serious risk of harming themselves or others. This can occur:

  • in private premises – police have powers to enter your home, if need be by force, under a section 135 warrant. You may then be taken to a place of safety for an assessment by an approved mental health professional and a doctor. You can be kept there until the assessment is completed, up to a maximum of 72 hours.
  • in a public place – if the police find you in a public place and you appear to have a mental disorder and are in need of immediate care or control, they can take you to a place of safety (usually a hospital or sometimes the police station) and detain you there under Section 136. You will then be assessed by an approved mental health professional and a doctor. You can be kept there until the assessment is completed, up to a maximum of 72 hours 


If you are already in hospital, certain nurses can stop you leaving under Section 5(4) until the doctor in charge of your care or treatment, or their nominated deputy, can make a decision about whether to detain you there under Section 5(2).


Section 5(4) gives nurses the ability to detain someone in hospital for up to six hours. Section 5(2) gives doctors the ability to detain someone in hospital for up to 72 hours, during which time you should receive an assessment that decides if further detention under the Mental Health Act is necessary. 



In most non-emergency cases, family members, a GP, carer or other professionals may voice concerns about your mental health. They should discuss this with you, and together you should make a decision about what help you may need, such as making an appointment with your GP to discuss further options. See Accessing mental health services for more information.


However, there may be times when there are sufficient concerns about your mental health and your ability to make use of the help offered. In these circumstances, your relatives or the professionals involved in your care can ask for a formal assessment of your mental health through the Mental Health Act process.


Your nearest relative has the right to ask the local approved mental health professional service – which may be run by local social care services – for an assessment under the Mental Health Act. It is also possible for a court to consider using the Mental Health Act in some circumstances, or for a transfer to a hospital to take place from prison.


As part of this formal process, you'll be assessed by doctors and an approved mental health professional. One of the doctors must be specially certified as having particular experience in the assessment or treatment of mental illness.


Read more about getting a mental health assessment.


The length of time you could be detained depends on the type of mental health condition you have and your personal circumstances at the time. You could be detained for:

  • up to 28 days under Section 2 of the Mental Health Act
  • up to six months under Section 3 of the Mental Health Act, with further renewals 


During these periods, assessments will be regularly carried out by the doctor in charge of your care to determine whether it is safe for you to be discharged and what further treatment is required, if any.


You should always be given information about your rights under the Mental Health Act.

Read the Royal College of Psychiatrists' questions and answers about being sectioned in England and Wales.  


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