What is a voluntary 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 are a voluntary patient (sometimes called an informal patient) if you are having in-patient treatment in a psychiatric hospital of your own free will.
You should have capacity to understand that you are going into hospital and agree to treatment for your mental health problem.
Being a voluntary patient is different to:
- being sectioned under the Mental Health Act. Being sectioned means you are 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 a voluntary patient?
If you are 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 department.
Sometimes, a local mental health team may come and assess you if they are 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.
In some areas, there is a shortage of beds so it may not be possible for you to be get treatment in hospital unless you are 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 a voluntary patient?
Hospitals have rules about what you can and can’t do that apply to everyone, whether you are a voluntary patient or you are sectioned – for example, meal times and acceptable behaviour. Policies about searching should include the rights of voluntary patients.
However, blanket restrictions – rules that restrict the freedom of all patients without individual risk assessments – should not be used such as limiting your:
- 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 and could be a breach of Article 5 of the Human Rights Act.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a voluntary patient?
There are advantages and disadvantages of being a voluntary patient, compared to being under section. Whether or not it is 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 are 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. This means that you can have more discussions with your care team, which leads to better understanding and you are more likely to take the medication.
- 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 is less likely to show up on a DBS check. If you are 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 are more likely to be allowed in foreign countries. If you want to travel to a country that needs a visa, some of the application forms will ask you about mental health problems. You are more likely to be allowed in the country if you have not been sectioned.
- You do not have the right to get section 117 aftercare. This means that you do not 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.
Because you do not have the same rights to aftercare, sometimes the discharge planning is not as detailed as it would be if you were under section.
- There is no right to review. This is different to if you are 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 is currently a shortage of hospital beds which means that in some areas you cannot 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 are 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 June 2018. We will revise it in 2020.