Mental Health Act 1983

The Mental Health Act (the Act) sets out the legal rights that apply to people with a mental disorder. Under this law a person can be admitted, detained and treated in hospital for a mental disorder without their consent.

This can be a subject that people find distressing or difficult to understand. However there are many places where you can go to find the information and support you need.

The Mental Health Act provides for the assessment and treatment of people with a mental disorder and sets out the rights that they have. In 2007 the Act was amended to ensure that service users are receiving the treatment they need and to provide professionals with a clear framework to work to.

People with mental health problems may sometimes be at risk of harming themselves or others and the Act exists to protect them. Individuals can only be detained if the strict criteria laid down in the Act are met.

In the majority of cases a person admitted to a hospital or psychiatric unit for a mental health condition is there on a voluntary basis. They have the same rights as any person going into hospital for treatment and they can leave at any time. They are known as informal patients.

A small number of people however may be compulsorily detained in a hospital for treatment under the Mental Health Act. A formal patient can only be detained for a maximum period of time depending on the reason for their detention and no patient can be detained indefinitely.

An individual can only be forced to have medical treatment if they are compulsorily detained under the Mental Health Act. In any other situation, the individual must consent to treatment before it is carried out.

What is a mental health disorder under the Mental Health Act?

The Mental Health Act defines a mental disorder as ‘any disorder or disability of the mind’. This definition is very wide and covers a range of disorders including schizophrenia, depression, anxiety disorders and eating disorders. Suffering from one of these disorders by itself does not mean that a person is subject to the provisions of the Act.

The Act also contains an exception for people with learning disabilities. A person will not fall within the definition simply because they have a learning disability. A disability will only fall within the definition of a mental disorder if it is associated with abnormally aggressive or seriously irresponsible conduct.

What treatment do people receive under the Mental Health Act?

People can only be given treatment under the Mental Health Act which will alleviate or prevent the worsening of their disorder. This treatment could involve nursing, psychological intervention or specialist mental health rehabilitation and care.

A person, except in an emergency situation, cannot be given electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) if they have capacity to give consent and have not done so. If the person is not capable of giving their consent to the treatment, ECT can only be used if it is appropriate for them and does not conflict with an advance decision that they have previously made.

What is supervised community treatment?

Supervised community treatment allows a person who has been detained under certain sections of the Mental Health Act to live in the community and continue to receive treatment. Conditions will be attached to this and it is only suitable for people whose treatment can be carried out without the need to be detained.

Can a person under 18 be subject to the Mental Health Act?

A person under 18 who has a mental disorder and needs the protection of the Act can be detained and treated under it. There is no lower age limit on the powers of the Act and there are no specific provisions that specifically deal with young people. However from April 2010 if a person under 18 is detained in hospital under the Act they have the right to be placed on a ward that is suitable for their age and needs.

Who can exercise powers under the Mental Health Act?

The amendments made to the Mental Health Act widened the group of professionals who can exercise powers under the Act. These powers were previously carried out by the approved social worker and responsible medical officer.

The Act now provides for a number of practitioners including mental health and learning disability nurses, occupational therapists, social workers and psychologists to become approved mental health professionals.

The responsible clinician has replaced the responsible medical officer as the practitioner who has overall responsibility for a patients care and treatment.

What is the Mental Capacity Act?

The Mental Capacity Act is a separate piece of legislation which protects people who may lack the capacity to make some decisions for themselves. The Act provides for adults to make advance decisions about future medical treatment and to appoint another to make decisions on their behalf when they no longer have the mental capacity to do so.