How Involuntary Hospitalization for Depression Works

Woman in hospital bed

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Are you considering involuntary hospitalization for depression for someone you care about? You may be wondering what you can do. You may not even be sure if hospitalization is really necessary. The following is meant to answer some of the questions that you may be having when making the difficult decision to commit someone to a mental hospital against their will.

When Does Involuntary Hospitalization Become Necessary?

If your loved one is experiencing symptoms such as severe depression, suicidal urges, mania, or psychosis, it can have a devastating impact on them and the people around them. Possible consequences can include suicide, physical harm to others, financial ruin, destroyed relationships, and the inability to take care of basic daily needs.

Unfortunately, mental illness often makes a person unable to think clearly about their situation. It may be up to the people around them—such as family members, police, emergency responders, or mental health providers—to take the initiative to get help in order to prevent a tragic outcome.

Terms to Understand

The term "mentally ill" is not as clearly defined for legal purposes as it is in the treatment of mental illness. With the exception of Utah, no state in the U.S. uses a list of recognized mental disorders to define mental illness. Instead, the definition varies from state to state and is usually defined in rather vague terms describing how mental illness affects thinking and behavior.

The definition of "grave disability" also varies from state to state. In general, it refers to a person's inability to take care of themselves.

Who Can Be Involuntarily Committed?

The laws vary widely from state to state, but a person must be living with a mental illness in order to be involuntarily committed.

Mental Illness Policy Org. provides criteria listed by state for both involuntary commitment for inpatient care and involuntary commitment for outpatient care.

Criteria that states may consider include:

  • A "clear and present danger" to himself or herself (someone who has inflicted serious bodily injury on themselves, has attempted suicide or serious self-injury, or threatened to inflict serious bodily injury on themselves)
  • Grave disability
  • The need for involuntary treatment (essential for health and safety)

Less common criteria used by some states include:

  • Responsiveness to treatment
  • Availability of appropriate treatment at the facility to which the person will be committed
  • Refusal of voluntary hospital admission
  • Lack of capacity to consent
  • Future danger to property
  • Least restrictive alternative

While most states require that the person presents a clear and present danger to themselves or others in order to be committed, this is not true for all states. In some, involuntary hospitalization may occur if individuals are refusing needed treatment whether or not they are considered to be dangerous.

Who Can Get Someone Involuntarily Hospitalized?

Emergency detentions, in which immediate psychiatric help is being sought, are usually initiated by family members or friends who have observed the person's behavior. Sometimes it's initiated by the police, although any adult could request emergency detention. The exact procedures vary by state, with many states requiring judicial approval or evaluation by a doctor confirming that the person meets the state's criteria for hospitalization.

Patients may also be admitted for what is known as observational institutionalization, in which hospital staff may observe the person to determine a diagnosis and administer limited treatment. Application for this type of hospitalization can usually be made by any adult who has a reason to do so, but some states require that the application is made by a doctor or hospital personnel. And most require that an observational institutionalization receives the approval of the courts.

The third type of hospitalization, extended commitment, is a bit more difficult to obtain. Generally, it requires one or more persons from a specific group of people—such as friends, relatives, guardians, public officials, and hospital personnel—to apply for one. Often a certificate or affidavit from one or more physicians or mental health professionals describing the patient's diagnosis and treatment must accompany the application.

In virtually all states a hearing must be held, with a judge or jury making the final decision about whether the person can be held.

How to Initiate the Process of Committing Someone

Because the actual process varies by state, it is a good idea to consult a local expert who can educate you about your state's procedures. People best able to advise you include:

  • Your family doctor or a psychiatrist
  • Your local hospital
  • Your local police department
  • A lawyer specializing in mental health law
  • Your state protection and advocacy association

If you believe that your loved one is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 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.

In most states, you will need a qualified civil official, crisis team member, or medical staff to deem a person a danger to themselves or others and enact a “psychiatric hold” or "pick up."

Commonly Asked Questions

How long does involuntary hospitalization last?
Emergency detention is typically only for a short period, with the average being about three to five days. It can vary a bit by state, however, ranging from just 24 hours in a few states to up to 20 days in New Jersey.

In the states that allow for observational commitment, the length of hospitalization can vary considerably, ranging from 48 hours in Alaska to six months in West Virginia.

A typical length for extended commitment is up to six months. At the end of the initial period, an application can be made for the time to be extended, generally for one to two times longer than the original commitment. Requests can be made for further commitment when each period expires, as long as the patient continues to meet the legal criteria.

Can a patient be forced to receive treatment?
Patients cannot be forced to receive treatment unless there has been a hearing declaring them legally incompetent to make their own decisions. Even though the person has been hospitalized involuntarily, most states will treat them as being capable of making their own medical decisions unless it has been determined otherwise.

Patients who are in immediate danger may be given medications on an emergency basis. However, these medications are directed at calming the person and stabilizing their medical condition rather than treating their mental illness.

For example, a sedative might be administered to prevent the person from harming themselves, but they could not be forced to take an antidepressant, as this is considered to be treatment.

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Article 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.
  1. Johnson JM, Stern TA. Involuntary hospitalization of primary care patientsPrim Care Companion CNS Disord. 2014;16(3):PCC.13f01613. doi:10.4088/PCC.13f01613

  2. Testa M, West SG. Civil commitment in the United StatesPsychiatry (Edgmont). 2010;7(10):30-40. PMID: 22778709

  3. Mental Illness Policy Org. Standards for Involuntary Commitment (Assisted Treatment) State-by-State (Source Treatment Advocacy Center). Updated January 23, 2019.

Additional Reading
  • Jacobson, James L. and Alan M. Jacobson, eds. Psychiatric Secrets, 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Hanley & Belfus. 2001.