Can You Commit Someone to a Mental Hospital Against Their Will?

Emergency Detention and Commitment for Severe Depression

Teenage girl sitting on hospital bed

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Being committed refers to the process of placing someone in a medical setting, such as a hospital psychiatric unit or a mental hospital. Can you be committed to a psychiatric ward at a hospital or a mental hospital against your will? What if you are feeling suicidal? What should you know about both short-term emergency detention and long-term commitment?

The short answer is that you can be committed to a mental hospital against your will if you meet the criteria set forth by the state in which you live.

The exact criteria vary, but often include the requirement that you must present a danger, either to yourself or others, before you can be committed.

General, Short-Term Commitment

The exact process for commitment varies from state to state. Additionally, each state has procedures in place that prevent you from being detained without just cause, such as requirements for medical certification or judicial approval. There are also time limits on how long you can be held against your will.

Who can initiate the process of having you committed also varies from state to state and depends on the type of commitment being sought.

It's important to note that there is also a significant difference between emergency detention—committing a person for a short period of time—and longer periods of commitment.

Can You Commit Someone If They Are Suicidal?

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Suicidal thoughts and feelings along with the belief that you are in immediate danger of hurting yourself would fall under the umbrella of reasons for a short-term commitment or involuntary hospitalization for depression.

Other criteria that may be considered include whether you are able to take care of yourself and whether you are in need of treatment for your mental illness. Some states do not require that a person be in danger of hurting themselves or others, and involuntary hospitalization may be considered if a person is refusing needed treatment for mental illness. The definition of mental illness also varies from state to state.

Reasons for Short-Term Commitment or Involuntary Hospitalization

  • Suicidal thoughts and feelings
  • Risk of immediate danger in hurting oneself
  • Inability to take care of oneself
  • A need for mental illness treatment
  • A refusal of necessary mental illness treatment

Who Can Make the Request?

A short-term emergency detention, such as detention immediately following a suicide attempt, can generally be requested by anyone who has witnessed the situation that you are in, including friends, family, or the police. Even though almost anyone can initiate the process, most states do require either medical evaluation or court approval in order to ensure that you meet that particular state's criteria.

The allowed duration of emergency detentions vary from state to state but are most often limited to 24–48 hours before a civil commitment proceeding must be initiated.

Some states have longer detention periods that can range from four to 10 days.

Can Someone Who Has Been Committed Refuse Treatment?

Commitment is often seen as a way to get mental help for someone who doesn't want it. However, even if a person has been committed through emergency detention, they will not be forced to undergo treatment for their mental illness.

The exception is treatments that are required on an emergency basis and are designed to calm a person or stabilize a medical condition. This does not include medications to specifically treat mental illness (such as administering antidepressants).

To make a person take medications for mental illness or go through therapy, that person would need to be declared incompetent to make their own decisions—a separate process from that of short-term commitment.

If someone you know needs mental help but refuses, there are strategies that you can use to encourage them to seek treatment. Listen, ask questions, validate their feelings, and offer support.

Building a relationship of trust and support means they may be more likely to take your advice. Start small by offering to help them research treatment options and offer to help them look at treatment options and drive them to appointments.

Can You Commit Someone for Long-Term Treatment?

Commitments for longer periods of time generally have more stringent requirements than emergency detention, but again are for limited periods of time and cannot be extended without the proper procedures being followed.

Typically, the maximum length of long-term commitment is six months depending on the state, after which a reassessment must be made before the commitment is extended.

To learn more about your own state's laws regarding involuntary commitment, consult the Treatment Advocacy Center, which provides a state-by-state review of all relevant laws.

Hospitalization for Depression

When talking about "commitment," it might sound like a prison sentence, but in actuality, when commitment is considered, the goal is to help a person, not to punish or restrict their rights as a human being. Talk of commitment usually demonstrates compassion and consideration of the safety and well-being of the person in need of help. Certainly, this is not always the case, and this is where the involvement of a medical professional or judicial approval is important.

Severe depression is, unfortunately, far too common. And for some, being hospitalized for depression may be the best step in getting help before you make any decisions you could later regret. While in the hospital, a person who is depressed will have the opportunity to meet with a psychiatrist or psychologist, a social worker, and participate in individual and/or group therapy.

It is likely that these treatments are behind the finding that emergency detention for people with severe mental illness is associated with a lower mortality rate (fewer deaths) and an improvement in the quality of life for those who are committed.

A Word From Verywell

Anyone—from family members and friends to police and emergency responders—can recommend short-term emergency detention (commitment) for a person who is in danger of hurting themself or others, as in the case of being suicidal. However, the exact requirements and criteria for commitment vary from state to state, as does the amount of time a person can be committed.

While emergency commitment can sound very frightening, the goal is to allow a person who is not coping well with mental illness to get the help needed to get past the crisis at hand. If you or a loved one are experiencing thoughts of suicide, seek help and make safety and prevention a priority.

If you are dealing with a mentally unstable family member, take steps to learn more about mental illness. Communicate with your loved one about your concerns and encourage them to seek treatment. Finding support for yourself and other family members is also essential. Consider joining a local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) for more information, support, and education programs.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Vernick J, Rutkow L, Hodge J, White L. Emergency Detention of Persons Deemed a Danger to Themselves or Others During Public Health Emergencies. “Legal and Ethical Assessments Concerning Mental and Behavioral Health Preparedness.” Johns Hopkins School of Public Health & Arizona State University College of Law. June 27, 2012.

  3. Kluge EH. Incompetent patients, substitute decision making, and quality of life: some ethical considerations. Medscape J Med. 2008;10(10):237. PMID:19099031

  4. Carroll H. Grading the States. Treatment Advocacy Center.

Additional Reading

By Nancy Schimelpfening
Nancy Schimelpfening, MS is the administrator for the non-profit depression support group Depression Sanctuary. Nancy has a lifetime of experience with depression, experiencing firsthand how devastating this illness can be.