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Informal patients

Explains your rights if you're having treatment in hospital as an informal patient.

What is an informal patient?

Most people with mental health problems are able to get treatment and support at home, sometimes with the help of their GP. But there may be times when you need to go to hospital to get treatment.

You're an informal patient if you're having in-patient treatment in a psychiatric hospital voluntarily.

You should have capacity to understand that you're going into hospital and agree to treatment for your mental health problem.

Being an informal patient is different to:

  • Being sectioned under the Mental Health Act. Being sectioned means you're kept in hospital even if you do not want to go or do not want treatment. To find out more, see our information on sectioning.
  • A deprivation of liberty under the Mental Capacity Act. This might happen if you don't have capacity to consent, but don't meet the criteria to be sectioned. To find out more, see our information on the Mental Capacity Act.

How can I be admitted to hospital as an informal patient?

If you're feeling unwell, and feel that you need treatment in hospital, you can get a referral from your GP or psychiatrist. If you need help more urgently, you can either phone for an ambulance or go to your local Accident and Emergency (A&E) department.

Sometimes, a local mental health team may come and assess you if they're worried about you. Depending on how unwell you are, you might then be admitted to hospital informally or sectioned under the Mental Health Act. See our information on sectioning to find out more about how the sectioning process works.

There's a shortage of beds in some areas, so it may not be possible for you to get treatment in hospital unless you're sectioned.

You should be given information about your legal rights – for example, the right to leave the ward and consent to treatment as well as how to make a complaint. You should get this information in a language and format that you understand.

What rules will I have to follow as an informal patient?

Hospitals have rules about what you can and can't do that apply to everyone, whether you are an informal patient or you are sectioned – for example, meal times and acceptable behaviour. Policies about searching should include the rights of informal patients.

However, blanket restrictions shouldn't be used. These limit your freedom to do certain things without individual risk assessments. Some examples are:

  • Access to the outside world
  • Access to the internet
  • Access to (or banning) your mobile phone and charger
  • Incoming or outgoing mail
  • Visiting hours
  • Access to money or the ability to make personal purchases
  • Taking part in preferred activities

If the rules are very restrictive and unnecessary, it could be a deprivation of liberty or a breach of Article 5 of the Human Rights Act.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of being an informal patient?

There are advantages and disadvantages of being an informal patient, compared to being under section. Whether or not it's the right choice for you will depend on your individual circumstances.


  • You have greater control and say on your life. For some people this is very important and can improve wellbeing.
  • You have more freedom. You're able to leave the ward when you want, within reason. You should also have less restrictions placed on you, like having your mail checked on the ward or having access to your possessions.
  • You can refuse treatment, including medication. But having open discussions with your care team may lead to a better understanding of your treatment options.
  • You are less likely to experience discrimination. People who are detained under the Mental Health Act are more likely to be discriminated against at work or when taking out insurance. The Equality Act could protect you from discrimination in some situations. See our information on disability discrimination to find out more.
  • It's less likely to show up on a DBS check. If you're taken to a place of safety under section 136 of the Mental Health Act, it may show up on a DBS check when you're applying for a job because the police have been involved. So this could affect your ability to find a job, especially if you work with children or vulnerable adults. See our information on DBS checks to find out more. If you go voluntarily, the police are less likely to be involved.
  • You're more likely to be allowed in foreign countries. If you want to travel to a country that needs a visa, some forms will ask you about mental health problems. If you disclose that you have been sectioned in the past, it may affect your chances of getting a visa. But there's limited evidence of this happening.


  • You may not feel like you're really in hospital voluntarily. Or that you can actually make choices over your treatment. You may feel like there's an imbalance of power between you and the staff. 
  • You don't have the right to get section 117 aftercare. This means that you don't always get the same level of support in the community as you would if you were sectioned, and that you may have to pay for some services. Without the same rights to aftercare, sometimes your discharge plan won't be as detailed as it would be if you were under section.
  • There is no right to review. This is different to if you're sectioned, where you would have the right to challenge your detention by applying for a mental health tribunal. To find out more see our information on sectioning.
  • It can sometimes be difficult to get a bed in hospital. There's currently a shortage of hospital beds in some areas. This may mean that you can't be admitted unless you are sectioned.
  • (In England only) You don't have the right to an independent mental health advocate (IMHA). IMHAs are only available if you're sectioned. But there may be other advocacy services available in your area. See our information on advocacy to find out more. In Wales, you have the right to an IMHA even as an informal patient.

This information was published in October 2022. We will revise it in 2025.

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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