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Explains your rights if you are having treatment in hospital as 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:
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.
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:
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.
This information was published in June 2018. We will revise it in 2020.
References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.