Mental health: ethnic minority experiences

Being sectioned under the Mental Health Act

Here, people talk about their experiences of being admitted to hospital, in some cases using powers provided by the Mental Health Act 1983, or “being sectioned”. To be sectioned, three people (an Approved Mental Health Professional (AMHP) or nearest relative and two doctors) must agree that the person is suffering from a mental disorder and needs to be detained for assessment or treatment, either for their own safety or the safety of others. Under section 2 of the Act, someone can be detained for up to 28 days for assessment; under section 3 a person can be detained for up to 6 months for treatment; section 4 is used in emergency situations for assessment over a period of 72 hours. Most hospital patients, however, have agreed to go into hospital and have not been sectioned under the Mental Health Act; they are known as informal or voluntary patients.

Some people had been in hospital several times while others had been admitted just on one occasion; one woman had been in the mother and baby unit of a psychiatric hospital (see Reena's story) and another spent periods of time in a mental health hostel specifically for people from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds. Most people had been informal patients on some occasions and sectioned on others; a few people could describe which section they had been on, while others couldn't remember or said they didn't know much about the mental health system at the time. One person emphasised that it's important to know your rights when in hospital [see Devon below]. People had spent between 48 hours and 9 months in hospital. 

Informal or voluntary admission
Some people willingly went to the doctor or hospital to ask for help when they were unwell and some had even decided to admit themselves as informal patients, including one woman pleaded with her doctor to admit her to hospital for “proper” treatment (see Reena's story). One man wanted help because he knew the way he was feeling “wasn't right”, while another said one of his “good” voices told him to go to hospital for treatment.

Informal patients can leave hospital when they wish, although if the doctor believes it is necessary to keep them in hospital, they can use section 5 of the Mental Health Act to detain them for 72 hours while they make an assessment. A few people said that this was a “weird kind of voluntary”.

Not everyone who sought help in this way was admitted to hospital. One man was given medication and sent home to his family where the crisis team visited him on a daily basis. He believed he was not sectioned (even though his parents requested it) because he was young and had support available in the community. He did, however, spend occasional periods in a respite unit at the request of his family and felt this was a helpful alternative to hospital. 

Involuntary admission (being 'sectioned')
Many people described being taken to hospital against their wishes. This often, but not always, followed a suicide attempt. Some were admitted because of concerns about their safety and the safety of others, while others were admitted for observation because they were unwell: “they see that hospitalisation was what I wanted”. A few people mentioned being asked lots of questions during this assessment process. A few were taken to hospital by the police, including one man who was arrested for theft and then assessed at the police station. Several people said they had been unsure why they had been hospitalised, and for some, hospitalisation was unexpected, especially for those who didn't realise there was anything wrong. One man couldn't understand why he'd been taken to hospital by the police “because I had committed no crime in my life”; at first, he didn't realise he'd been sectioned, and later wondered whether he was sectioned because he is Black.

Although many people didn't want to go to hospital, some saw later that it helped them in some way (see Hanif's story) because they got the right diagnosis (see Sara's story), got their medication right, sorted out their accommodation, or learnt techniques to be able to manage their condition. Others, however, were glad to have avoided being sectioned. 

Many people described wanting to leave the hospital, including one woman who said: “I still wouldn't stay in hospital and get the help needed because I just didn't trust people”. A few even managed to escape, and lived on the streets until they were brought back to hospital, in one case by the police. Everyone has the right to appeal against detention to a Mental Health Review Tribunal, and some did so.

Some people chose to remain in hospital as an informal patient after a 6 month review of their case. This included one man who was keen to get back to the community but also wanted to get better' “I couldn't leave, I was in a state, so I said, 'I'll stay voluntary for a while'”.

See also 'Being in hospital for mental health problems' for more about what people felt their hospital stay was like.

Last reviewed September 2018.

Last updated February 2013.


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