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Being a voluntary patient – for young people

A guide on what happens and what your rights are when you go into hospital as a voluntary patient.

This page is also available in Welsh.

What does being a voluntary patient mean?

This is when you, or someone who looks after you, agree for you to stay in hospital to get treatment and support for your mental health. This is sometimes called being an informal patient.

Being a voluntary patient is different to being sectioned. When you’re sectioned, you’re kept in hospital even if you don’t want to be there. To find out more, see our page on being sectioned.

It’s normal to feel nervous, worried or upset about going into hospital. We’re here to support you.

On this page we have information on:

Treatment and support glossary

Visit our treatment and support glossary which explains words and phrases you may hear when you go into hospital as a voluntary patient.

Who decides if I need to go into hospital?

You should only go into hospital if it’s the only way for you to get the treatment and support you need. 

You will usually need to agree to going into hospital. But in some cases, like if you’re under 16 years old, your parent or carer might be able to agree on your behalf.

If you or your parent or carer don’t agree to going into hospital, your care team will try to find another way to look after you. If they think the only way to keep you safe and get you the support you need is by going to hospital, you could be sectioned.

Whether you go into hospital voluntarily or you're sectioned, your doctors should help you understand what’s happening to you. They should also listen to your feelings and views, and answer all your questions.

“I knew that going into hospital could save my life, whereas staying at home wouldn’t.”

What should I take into hospital?

You might go into hospital straight away, or you might be able to visit the hospital ward first. This will depend on how quickly your care team think you need to get treatment and support.

If you have some time before you go into hospital, it’s a good idea to pack a bag to take with you. If you’re not sure what to pack, you could think about what you would take on a trip away. Here are some ideas:

  • comfy clothes (you might need to take the strings out of hoodies or joggers)
  • pyjamas
  • flip flops
  • books and magazines
  • toiletries and tooth brush
  • tampons or sanitary towels
  • notepad (without spiral binding) and pen
  • duvet cover and pillow cases
  • photos of family, friends, and girlfriends and boyfriends
  • a teddy bear or cuddly toy
  • something to keep you busy, like cards or a tablet
  • something to listen to, like music
  • lists of important phone numbers (in case you can’t use your phone)
  • medication from your doctor (you might need to give this to the hospital to look after).

“When I went in, I didn’t know what to bring or what it would be like.”

What am I not allowed to bring with me?

Different wards will have their own rules about what you can and can't bring with you.

Usually you won’t be able to bring anything that could be used to harm yourself or someone else. For example, you might not be able to bring glass bottles like nail varnish, perfume or aftershave.

There are some things that you probably won’t be able take onto the ward, like: 

  • alcohol
  • illegal drugs
  • medication that's not from your doctor
  • cigarettes
  • anything with a sharp blade, like a razor.

If you’re not sure whether you can bring something, you can always call ahead and ask. Staff might be able to suggest other options for you. For example, you could bring roll on deodorant instead of spray, or wax strips instead of razors.

What will happen when I arrive at hospital? 

When you first arrive on the ward, a member of staff should spend some time with you to help you get settled.

A nurse or doctor will also ask you some questions about your medical history and check your physical health.

“I was met by a really friendly nurse who showed me to my room and did a bag search. She took my observations such as height, weight and blood pressure. She then showed me around the ward, and into the lounge area, where I met some of the other patients.”

This is good time to ask questions and find out about anything that is worrying you. You might want to ask…

  • if you can keep your phone with you
  • what time meals are
  • when your family or friends can visit you
  • what kind of activities they have on the ward
  • how you can wash your clothes.

Don’t be afraid to ask a question, even if you feel a bit embarrassed about it – staff will be used to all kinds of questions.

Will my arrival be different because of coronavirus?

You might be asked to do a test when you arrive and stay in your room until you get your result.

Your care team can’t force you to stay in your room. But if you don’t, you might be asked to leave the ward.

Will I have to follow rules when I’m in hospital?

Hospitals have rules about what you can and can’t do on the ward, and you’ll be expected to follow them. For example, there will be rules around what time meals are, what you’re allowed to bring onto the ward, and how you should behave.

Hospitals aren’t allowed to use 'blanket restrictions'. These are rules that limit the freedom of all patients without looking at the needs of individuals. For example, your hospital saying that everyone is only allowed one hour of leave a week, or that no one can use social media.

What treatment and support will I get in hospital?

When you’re in hospital, you will be looked after by lots of different people, such as nurses, doctors and mental health professionals. 

The people who look after you are called your care team. It’s their job help you get the support and treatment you need to get better. This might include things like:

Your ward will also have an outdoor area where you can get some fresh air.

"The ward I was on had quite a structured therapy program, which was a bit like a school timetable. It contained a weekly cycle of loads of different groups, such as CBT therapy, art therapy, yoga, baking, gardening, as well as 1-1 time with therapists.”

Can I decide what treatment and support I get?

Your care team should always try to involve you in decisions about your treatment and support. This is known as your care plan

Usually your care team can’t give you treatment unless you agree to it. This is called giving your consent.

But there are a few situations where they may be able to give you treatment without your consent. For example, if you’re too unwell to make your own decisions and your parent or carer has agreed on your behalf. Or if you're too unwell to make your own decisions and your care team think that it's in your best interests to have the treatment.

Looking after yourself in hospital

Visit our page on looking after yourself in hospital for tips and ideas on how to look after your wellbeing.

What are my rights when I’m in hospital?

It’s important to understand what your rights are so you can make sure you’re being treated fairly, and that you’re getting all the things you need.

A lot of these rights will be the same when you’re sectioned. To find out what's different, see our information on being sectioned.

Your ward should speak to your school to find out what you’re studying. This will help them to give you work similar to what you’d normally be doing in school.

You will be asked to do as much work as you can, as long as you’re feeling well enough.

If you're 16 or 17 years old, you also have a right to training if you’d like this.

You should be put on a ward for under 18’s straightaway.

But if you’re 16 or 17, there are some situations where you could be put on an adult ward.

This might happen if you need to go into hospital quickly and there are no beds on the young people’s ward.

Or it might happen if being on an adult ward is better for you. For example, if you’re about to turn 18 and don’t want to change wards when this happens, or you have a baby.

You have the right to stay in touch with your family and friends while you’re in hospital. You should be able to do this in different ways, such as having visitors, making phone calls or texting.

When visitors come to see you, the hospital should provide an area for you to spend time with them, like a visitor’s room. They probably won’t be allowed to visit you in your bedroom.

Sometimes you may not want to see someone who comes to visit you, and that’s okay – staff should always ask you first.

In some situations, you might be placed a long way from home (also called an out of area placement). If your family are struggling with travel costs, they can ask for some support. Ask your care team for more information.

“Most hospitals have visiting hours and will encourage family and friends to visit you as they know how important it is for your mental wellbeing!”


Can I still have visitors during coronavirus?

You should still be allowed to have visitors during the coronavirus outbreak.

But there might be rules on how many visitors can come onto the ward, and you might need to see your visitors from behind a screen. You will also need to follow social distancing guidelines with visitors.

Your privacy should be respected while you’re in hospital.

But if your care team are worried about the safety of you or someone else, you may have less privacy.

This might mean they check on you more often, or it could mean they need to watch you all the time. If this happens, you must still be treated with respect and be listened to by your care team.

You should always be allowed to:

  • wash and dress in private
  • see your visitors in private
  • send emails or get post without it being read by staff.

“Hospitals are designed to be a safe space, not a prison, so although it might feel enclosed at times, remember it won’t be forever and staff want what’s best for you!”

You should be able to have some access to your phone, social media and the internet while you’re on the ward.

But there might be some places you’re not allowed to use your phone.

There may also be times when you’re not allowed to use your phone at all. For example, if your care team are worried that it’s affecting your mental health. If they do take your phone away from you, this must be for a short time, and it should be kept somewhere safe.

When you’re in hospital, you have a right to your personal information being kept confidential. This means that everything you say will normally be kept between you and your care team.

Your hospital should have a policy explaining the rules they have to follow. Usually they’ll only share what you've told them if:

  • you want them to
  • it will help you to get good care
  • if they’re worried that you or someone else could be in danger.

If they do need to tell someone else what you’ve told them, they should always try to tell you first.

To find out more, go to our page on understanding confidentiality.

You’ll be expected to spend most of your time on the ward, but you should be able to have some time away. This is called having leave. If you're sectioned,  you might also hear this called section 17 leave.

Having leave from the ward might seem scary at first, but it’s an important part of getting better.

How does getting leave work?

If you want to go on leave, you should ask a nurse or doctor. They will need to think about whether it’s safe for you to have time away from the ward. The might also need to check with your parent or carer.

At first your care team might only want you to leave the ward for a short time and you might need to go with someone. Over time, your leave should build up, and you might be able to leave the ward overnight.

If your care team are worried about you, they might ask you to stop going on leave for a while. It’s important to remember that this will only be temporary.

“They began by encouraging small walks just around the corner from the ward to the shop. This gradually built up, until after around 6 or 7 weeks I could go on overnight leave home.”

Can I still have leave during coronavirus?

Hospitals should still be able to give you leave during the coronavirus outbreak.

But staff might need to limit the amount of leave you have, or ask you to go at different times to other patients.

There are some situations where you may have less rights. For example:

Your hospital will have rules about when staff can search you, your things, or people visiting you. For example, if they think someone has something that’s not allowed on the ward, like a sharp object or alcohol.

Before searching anyone or their things, staff should check if it’s okay with them. They should also explain what’s happening and why, and answer any questions they have.

If you don’t want to be searched, staff should talk with you and try to reach an understanding. If you still don’t agree and they think you might be carrying something that's a risk to yourself or others, you might be asked to leave the ward permanently.

If someone visiting you doesn’t want to be searched, they may not be allowed on the ward.

The law says that if...

  • you’re hurting yourself or someone else
  • or there’s a serious risk you’ll hurt yourself or someone else

...your care team are allowed to physically stop you. This is called restraint.

Restraint should only be used if nothing else has helped to calm you down, and your care team should always try to talk to you first. But, if they have no other option than to restrain you, they must:

  • do it for the shortest time possible
  • do it with the least force possible
  • treat you with as much respect as possible while it's happening
  • keep a written record of what has happened – this should be put in your notes.

Restraint should never be used as a punishment, or with the aim of hurting you. 

As well as physical restraint, there are other things that staff might need to do to keep you safe. These are known as restrictive interventions.

What if child services are involved in my care?

Child services are part of organisations called local authorities (local governments). If you live:

  • with foster parents
  • in a children’s home
  • in a secure unit or a residential school

…child services can provide extra help for you while you’re in hospital.

What if child services have a care order for me?

A care order means that a court has given child services the power to make decisions about you.

This means they can limit your parent or carer’s ability to have contact with you, or make decisions for you while you’re in hospital. They’ll also arrange for someone to act in the place of your parent or carer, and to visit you on the ward.

What if I’m not happy with how I’m being treated?

If you feel like you’re not being treated fairly or getting the support you need, speak to a member of your care team and explain how you’re feeling.

If you don’t feel confident to do this on your own, you could ask a trusted adult or an advocate for help.

Can an advocate help me?

An advocate is someone who can listen to you and help make sure your voice is heard.

In Wales – everyone on the ward has the right to an advocate, which is also called an Independent Mental Health Advocate (IMHA).

In England – only people who’ve been sectioned have a right to an IMHA, but some wards have advocates that voluntary patients can use too. If you’re not sure whether there’s an advocate you can speak to, you should ask someone in your care team.

“On my first week on the ward, I met with an advocate who explained her role to me. This advocate visited every week if anyone wanted to talk to her.”

Making a complaint

If you still feel like you’re not being treated fairly or you’re unhappy about something that’s happening on the ward, you can make a complaint.

You can ask the hospital about how to do this, and who you should make the complaint to.

Making a complaint can be a hard process to go through, especially when you’re not feeling well. It can help to ask a trusted adult to help you, or see if there is an advocacy service on your ward. They can help you write down what you’re worried about and what you want to happen.

You should try to make your complaint as soon as possible. Usually the time limit is 12 months from when the event happened or the problem started.

What happens when I leave hospital?

Leaving hospital can feel like a very big step.

Before you go, your care team will want to make sure you’re well enough to leave, and that there’s support in place for you when you get home. Leaving hospital is also known as discharge.

If you want to leave before your care team think you’re ready, they should try and explain why they don’t think you’re ready to go. If you’re in hospital as a voluntary patient, they can’t make you stay. But, if they’re worried that you might be a risk to yourself or others, they might section you. You can read more about this in our guide on being sectioned.

If you don’t feel ready to leave hospital, you should speak to your care team so they can work through any worries with you.

“The goal of hospital is to leave feeling stronger than when you went in, and able to cope at home, so if you don’t feel like you’ve reached that point yet then speak up!”

When you leave, you should be given:

  • a discharge summary, which explains how long you were in hospital and how your recovery went whilst you were there
  • a care plan, which explains a bit about you and the care and support you need. This could include advice on what should happen if you’re in crisis
  • contact details for someone you can speak to if you think your mental health is getting worse.

You might also be asked to go back to the hospital for appointments, or have follow up appointments with Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) or your doctor.

“Without the support and help from the team, I really don’t think I’d be alive today and have overcome my problems. Hospital is a really scary prospect but it was nowhere near as bad or as scary as I thought.”

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This information was published in December 2020. We will revise it in 2022.

References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.

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