Get information and advice - Sibling FAQs - What does 'being sectioned' mean?
My sister was recently sectioned under the mental health act and was taken into hospital. I don’t really understand what this means or what her rights are. Can you help?
If your sibling is detained or ‘sectioned’ under the Mental Health Act, this can be a very difficult time for you and your family as well as your sibling. You may have a number of questions or concerns. Below you will find information on what being sectioned under the Mental Health Act means, when this may be an appropriate option, how it can be challenged and some of the key differences between being sectioned and going to hospital voluntarily.
1. What does it mean if someone is sectioned?
Being ‘sectioned’ is the term that is often used when someone is detained under the Mental Health Act. The Mental Health Act is the law which can allow someone to be admitted, detained (or kept) and treated in hospital against their wishes. It can be a very distressing experience for the person, and their family and friends, and will generally be used only if all other options have been considered, for instance looking at whether support can be provided in the community or if someone would agree to go into hospital voluntarily.
2. Why would someone be sectioned?
The Mental Health Act would only be considered if someone was very unwell and will never be taken lightly.
Someone needs to meet certain criteria in order to be sectioned. This criteria is that someone has to be suffering from a mental disorder of a nature or degree which warrants your detention in a hospital for assessment or treatment and that you ought to be detained in the interests of your own health, your own safety or with a view to the protection of others. (Mental disorder is a broad term that includes conditions like schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder or personality disorder).
3. How is someone actually sectioned?
The decision to section someone will be taken after a Mental Health Act assessment. There are many different ways that it can get to this stage.
It may be that someone is already in touch with a mental health team who are so concerned about their current mental health that they arrange an assessment. In some situations, a person’s family could be so concerned that they contact the local mental health team or crisis team themselves, and may request an assessment, or it could be that emergency services have to be called if the situation has become very urgent, which could lead to an assessment.
Someone can be sectioned if three people involved in a Mental Health Act assessment agree that the person needs to be detained in hospital and meets the criteria just mentioned. Usually, these three people are an Approved Mental Health Professional (who is a professional, such as a Social Worker, who has had extra training to carry out these assessments), and two doctors. If possible, one of these doctors should know the person. A Mental Health Act assessment may be carried out at someone’s home. If this situation, police may be present, which can be very distressing.
The Approved Mental Health Professional may speak to someone’s nearest relative or carer when considering admitting someone to hospital under a section. If someone is going to be detained under a Section 3, which is used in order to treat someone for a mental illness, someone’s nearest relative has to be spoken to beforehand1. Please see the question below for more information on the nearest relative.
4. Can I, or someone else in my family, ask for my sibling to be sectioned?
Under the Mental Health Act, a key person in the family is the nearest relative. This is someone who is defined under a hierarchy of relatives in the Mental Health Act, and it is not necessarily going to be the same person as someone’s next of kin. The nearest relative has certain rights under the Mental Health Act.
In the nearest relative hierarchy, someone’s husband/wife/civil partner/partner that they have cohabited with for more than six months, oldest adult son or daughter and oldest parent all come before oldest sibling in the hierarchy.
If you or your family are worried that your sibling is unwell and may need to be in hospital, you might think about asking for your sibling to be assessed under the Mental Health Act. There are a number of options that you could use to try and get someone help during a mental health crisis. As previously mentioned, the Mental Health Act is never an option that should be taken lightly or explored before other options have been fully considered. Unfortunately, sometimes despite best efforts of friends and family, and professional services, other options may not have worked (e.g. providing support at home, or getting your sibling to go to hospital voluntarily).
At this stage, if your sibling is very unwell, then the Mental Health Act may be used. The nearest relative has the right to request that a Mental Health Act assessment is considered for their relative under a particular section of the Mental Health Act and they can contact the local Social Services department or local mental health team to use this right. The nearest relative should receive written reasons if the Approved Mental Health Professional does not apply to detain their relative in hospital under the Mental Health Act.
You may not be the nearest relative. However, if you are very concerned for your sibling’s mental health, and feel that the Mental Health Act may be necessary, then there are other ways you can request this help, such as contacting the local mental health services with your concerns. Our Advice & Information Service would be happy to discuss this sort of situation with you.
5. Can I, or someone else in my family, challenge my sibling being sectioned?
If you or your sibling’s family want to challenge your sibling being sectioned, the nearest relative has the right to apply for discharge if their relative is detained under section. This does not apply to all sections, for instance emergency sections or certain criminal sections. The nearest relative can give 72 hours’ written notice to the Hospital Managers that they are going to discharge their relative. However, this can be blocked by the person in charge of their relative’s treatment if it is felt that they could be a danger to themselves or others.
It may be that you are not the nearest relative – however, if your sibling is in hospital under section and you feel they should challenge this you could support them by making them aware of their own rights. When someone is detained under section, they will have certain rights to appeal to Hospital Managers or to a tribunal for discharge.
6. What are the benefits and the downsides of being sectioned rather than going into hospital voluntarily?
This is quite a complex issue, and the answer might differ if you were answering it as a concerned sibling or relative, or as the person in hospital.
Being in hospital voluntarily means that you have the right to leave freely, which you do not have under section where you need to be given authorised leave to be away from the hospital ward.
Being in hospital voluntarily also means that someone has the right to refuse treatment. If someone is sectioned, the Mental Health Act gives the hospital the power to treat someone against their will.
In some situations, someone may admit themselves to hospital voluntarily, but decide they want to refuse treatment or leave before they are considered ready to do so. The Mental Health Act may be considered in these situations if it was felt that they may be too unwell to leave or so unwell that they need the treatment that they are refusing.
There can be benefits of being on particular sections rather than going to hospital voluntarily in regards to the aftercare received after hospital. When someone has been under certain treatment sections of the Mental Health Act, such as a section 3, then there is a duty to provide something known as section 117 aftercare.
This means that there is a duty to plan aftercare for after hospital discharge, but also this aftercare is fully funded so someone does not have to pay for it, regardless of their financial situation.
Our advice and information service would be happy to discuss any issues around the Mental Health Act and you can find their contact details at the end of this sheet.
For further information on issues covered in these questions, please see the following Rethink Advice & Information Service factsheets:
Detention under the Mental Health Act
Discharge from detention under the Mental Health Act
Section 117 aftercare
Getting help in a crisis
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