The Mental Health Act 1983

If you have severe mental illness, you might be held under the Mental Health Act. This is sometimes called ‘sectioning’.  We explain why you may be detained, and what rights you have.

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The Mental Health Act says when you can be detained in hospital and treated against your wishes.

  • You can be detained if professionals think your mental health puts you or others at risk, and you need to be in hospital.
  • If you are detained, NHS staff may be able to give you treatment, even if you don’t want it.
  • There are different sections of the Mental Health Act. These are used for different reasons.
  • When you are detained, you have the right to appeal, and the right to get help from an independent advocate.

About the Mental Health Act

The Mental Health Act says when you can be taken to hospital, kept there, and treated against your wishes. This can only happen if you have a mental disorder that puts you, or others, at risk.

You should only be detained under the Mental Health Act if there are no other ways to keep you, or others, safe.

Being detained under the Mental Health Act is sometimes called being ‘sectioned’, because the law has different sections.

Your rights under the Mental Health Act depend on which section you are detained under.

This page does not cover criminal law sections. Click the links below to find our more about each section:

What is a mental disorder?

You can only be detained if you have a ‘mental disorder’. The Mental Health Act does not say exactly what can be classed as a ‘mental disorder’. So, when they’re using the Mental Health Act, health professionals will decide if someone’s mental health meets this definition.

You cannot be detained for drug or alcohol addiction. But you can be detained if alcohol or drugs cause mental health problems. For example, if you have delusions because of using cannabis.

Find out more information about ‘Drugs, alcohol and mental health’ here

How can I be detained?

Who decides if I should be detained?

Usually, 3 people have to agree that you need to be detained. But this may not be the case if the situation is urgent.

The 3 people are normally:

  • an approved mental health professional (AMHP),
  • a doctor who has special training in mental disorders, called a ‘section 12 approved doctor’, and
  • another doctor.

If possible, at least one of the doctors should have met you before.

The AHMP can only agree this if they have seen you in the past 14 days.

The doctors must either have seen you at the same time, or within five days of each other.

If all 3 people agree that you need to be detained, the AMHP will apply to a local hospital for a bed.

Your nearest relative can also apply for you to be detained, but this is rare. There is more information about your nearest relative below.

What is an AMHP?

AMHPs are mental health professionals who carry out certain duties under the Mental Health Act. They are given specialist training to do this.

An AMHP might be a:

  • social worker,
  • nurse,
  • occupational therapist, or
  • psychologist.

A doctor cannot be an AMHP.

Where am I assessed?

This depends on where you are. The assessment might take place at your home, in a public place, or in hospital.

If you are at home, the AMHP should introduce themselves, and the doctors, to you. They should explain why they have come to see you.

The AMHP can apply to court for a warrant if you refuse to let them in, or if they think it’s necessary for another reason. A warrant lets the police enter your home to take you somewhere safe. This is called a ‘section 135’. If your home can be made a safe place, you may be kept there while an assessment is arranged.

If you are away from home in a public place, the police can take you to a safe place under ‘section 136’. A safe place might be:

  • your own home,
  • a hospital, or
  • a police station.

The links below can tell you more about each type of section:

How do they assess me?

When you are safe, the professionals will decide if you need to be detained. They will ask you questions, and think about all of your circumstances. They may ask you:

  • how you are feeling,
  • if you have plans to harm yourself or others,
  • about your lifestyle, daily routine, and living conditions,
  • if you have been taking your medication, and
  • if you have been using drugs or alcohol.

What happens if I am detained?

If you are not already in hospital, the AMHP will arrange for you to go there as soon as possible. In some cases the police will go with you.

Staff should tell you which section you are detained under, and what your rights are. They should also give you a ‘Patient Information Leaflet’ about your rights. If you find it hard to understand, let them know.

It is likely that you will be taken to a specialist ward for people with mental health problems. They may call this an ‘acute ward’ or a ‘psychiatric ward’. In most hospitals, the door to the ward will be locked.

Sometimes the hospital might be a long way from home. But guidance says that the AMHP should try to find you a hospital bed as close as is ‘reasonably possible’ to where you would like to be.

In hospital, you will be introduced to your ‘responsible clinician’. This is the person who is in charge of your care and treatment. They are usually a psychiatrist, but they can be other professionals too.

What is a nearest relative?

The ‘nearest relative’ is a legal term used in the Mental Health Act. It is not the same as your next of kin.

Your nearest relative has certain rights if:

  • they are worried about your mental health,
  • you are detained under the Mental Health Act, or
  • professionals are thinking about detaining you under the Mental Health Act.

Find out more about your 'nearest relative' here. {{needs link}}

Can I avoid being detained?

People often get detained because their mental health is putting them or others at risk, and they won’t accept treatment. Taking steps to improve your mental health can reduce the chance of being detained.

If it is likely you will be assessed soon, think about the possibility of accepting treatment, and reducing risky behaviour. During the assessment, you may want to explain how things are at home, and what support you already have.

If the professionals think you are at risk, talk to them about other options for reducing these risks.

The professionals should listen to what you have to say, and consider all alternatives to detaining you. These alternatives might be treatment from local mental health services, or you agreeing to go to hospital.

If you want a friend or family member with you during a Mental Health Act assessment, let the approved mental health professional (AMHP) know.

What support can I get?

Being taken to hospital against your will can be stressful and upsetting and you may feel that you need a lot of support.

Friends, family, and carers

Your friends and family can visit you in hospital if you want. There may be set visiting times.

There may be situations when doctors can stop someone visiting you. But they would need to show that this is necessary for safety or security reasons and they should explain these reasons to you. If a doctor stops someone visiting you, when it’s not necessary, it could be a breach of your rights.

While you’re in hospital, you should be able to keep in touch with your family by telephone, email, or social media.

Emotional support lines

You may want to talk to someone about the way you feel. Ask the ward staff if you can use a phone to call a listening service, like Samaritans (telephone: 116 123).

Independent Mental Health Advocate (IMHA)

You can get help from an IMHA if you are under sections 2 or 3 of the Mental Health Act.

IMHAs help you to tell staff about your concerns, and find out what your rights are. They can also help you to understand your treatment. They are independent of the hospital staff.

Staff should tell you about help from an IMHA as soon as possible after you are detained.

If you think you would find it helpful to speak to an IMHA, ask staff about how to get in touch with one. You may have to ring a number to make an appointment. IMHAs can meet with you in private, if you would like them to.

You can’t get help from an IMHA if you are:

  • under an emergency section (Section 4),
  • under holding powers of the Mental Health Act (Section 5), or
  • in a place of safety under police powers (Section 135 or 136).


If you are under sections 2 or 3, and you think you should not have been detained, you can appeal to a tribunal. A solicitor can help you do this. This help should be free under legal aid.

Civil Legal Advice can tell you more about legal aid, and help you to find a solicitor. Their number is in the ‘Useful Contacts’ section of this page. 

There may also be a list of solicitors on the ward.

Use the links below to find more information about:

  • Going into hospital {{needs link}}
  • Going into hospital- for carers, friends, and relatives {{needs link}}

Sections 2, 3, 4 & 5

Section 2 - Assessment

Under Section 2, you can be kept in hospital for up to 28 days. This section gives doctors time to decide:

  • what type of mental disorder you have,
  • if you need any treatment, and
  • how treatment will affect your health.

An approved mental health professional (AMHP) is more likely to use section 2 than section 3 if:

  • you have never been assessed in hospital before, or
  • you have not been assessed for a long time.

A psychiatrist may offer you treatment. If you refuse treatment, the staff may be able to give it to you without your permission.

When can I be detained?

You can be detained if: 

  • you have a mental disorder,
  • you are unwell enough to need to be in hospital for an assessment, and
  • professionals think you should be in hospital for your own health or safety, or to protect other people.

How will I be detained?

An approved mental health professional (AMHP) needs to apply to hospital. Your nearest relative can also do this, but this is rare.

An AMHP can only apply if they have seen you in the last 14 days. They also need recommendations from 2 doctors. One of these doctors must have seen you in the last 14 days. And the doctors must not have seen you more than 5 days apart.

How long can I be kept in hospital?

Up to 28 days. But this doesn’t mean you will be in hospital for that long. Your doctor should discharge you from section 2 if you no longer meet the criteria for detention.

Hospital staff cannot extend a section 2. If you need treatment in hospital for longer, you will need to go on to a section 3.

You can stay on a section 2 longer than 28 days if the county court is thinking about changing your nearest relative.

What are my rights on a section 2?

You have the following rights when you are under section 2.

  • To appeal to a tribunal during the first 14 days
  • To appeal to the hospital managers
  • To see an Independent Mental Health Advocate (IMHA), who can help you to understand your rights, and get your voice heard

You can find more information about ‘Discharge from the Mental Health Act’here

Can they give me treatment I don’t want?

Yes. But the staff should ask you to accept treatment first. If you are unhappy about your treatment, talk to the person in charge of your care (your responsible clinician). An Independent Mental Health Advocate (IMHA) may be able to help.

Staff can only give you some treatments, like electro-convulsive therapy (ECT), if certain criteria are met.

Who can discharge me?

You can be discharged by:

  • your responsible clinician,
  • the hospital managers,
  • your nearest relative, and
  • the tribunal.

What happens next?

If your doctor thinks you should stay in hospital longer than 28 days, and you won’t agree to this, they may put you on a section 3.

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