Mental Health Act: Here's What Actually Happens When A Person Is Sectioned

Stigma is stopping people from seeking the help they need at crisis point.

When a family decides a loved one needs to be sectioned, it’s usually because they are at breaking point. All other options will have been exhausted and they’ll be worried for the safety of the person who needs help. In some cases, a person might seek help themselves because they’re at crisis point.

Sadly, there’s a lot of stigma surrounding the act of being sectioned which, according to Alex Kennedy from charity Rethink Mental Illness, can result in people not reaching out for help.

Stigma often stems from a lack of understanding – and the act of being sectioned, or detained under the Mental Health Act, is still something that happens behind closed doors with few people talking about it.

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What Does ‘Being Sectioned’ Entail?

Under the Mental Health Act (1983), a person can be detained and treated for a mental illness in hospital without their agreement, often as a last resort.

“The primary goal of the Act has always been to protect people who are very unwell and ensure that they receive support and treatment,” Will Johnston, senior policy officer at Rethink, told HuffPost UK. “Many of our supporters have told us that they are alive today because of the help that they received whilst subject to it.”

Last year the government commissioned an independent review into the Act to determine in what ways it works – and where it has been failing people.

Previous research by Rethink Mental Illness found 61 per cent of people who had been sectioned felt they were not treated with dignity. Key concerns are that people have no choice over how they are treated and no choice over how their relatives are involved in the process. It is hoped the review, published on 6 December, will inform a change in how the Mental Health Act works.

How Are People Sectioned?

Over a quarter (27 per cent) of us have either been detained under the Mental Health Act, or know someone who has, according to a poll by Rethink.

There are different types of sections, each with different rules to keep you in hospital. The length of time you can be kept in hospital depends on which ‘section’ you are detained under: sections 2, 3 and 4 are the most common.

Some people can be kept for up to 28 days, while others can be detained up to six months, says Johnston. In some rare cases, he’s known of people being detained for a decade.

There were 49,551 detentions under the Mental Health Act between 2017 and 2018. Most people are sectioned in hospital, but some might have been picked up by police. It’s also possible for people to be sectioned from a GP’s office.

Close family members also have the right to ask the local approved mental health professional service for an assessment under the Mental Health Act, according to the NHS.

What Actually Happens When A Person Is Sectioned?

Firstly, you will be assessed by an approved mental health professional. This person will determine whether you appear to be suffering from a mental disorder and, if you meet the criteria, they will recommend for you to be detained, said Johnston.

You will then be assessed by two doctors – one of which has to be specially –approved to do Mental Health Act detentions. After that, you’ll be taken to a mental health hospital where you will begin your detention, which means you have to stay in hospital and have treatment. Most people go in on a Section 2, which means they can be detained for up to 28 days.

“There are different safeguards around that to make sure people aren’t being wrongfully detained, so they can appeal to a mental health tribunal within 14 days,” Johnston added.

During your stay in hospital, you will have a responsible clinician (a psychiatrist in charge of your care and treatment) who will make an assessment about whether you’re well enough to be discharged.

If you aren’t deemed well enough to be released, there is a Section 3, which can last up to three months and can be renewed multiple times. (In fact, there is no limit to the number of times the responsible clinician can renew it.)

Useful websites and helplines:

  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
  • Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
  • The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email:
  • Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on