Skip to Content

How long is a person sectioned for?

Being sectioned, also known as being detained under the Mental Health Act, refers to when a person is compulsorily admitted to hospital for assessment and/or treatment of a mental illness. There are specific criteria and processes that must be followed for someone to be lawfully sectioned in the UK.

What does it mean to be sectioned?

Being sectioned means that a person is legally required to stay in hospital for assessment and/or treatment of their mental illness, even if they do not want to. There are three main sections of the Mental Health Act under which a person can be detained:

  • Section 2 – For assessment and possible treatment, up to 28 days
  • Section 3 – For treatment, up to 6 months (can be renewed)
  • Section 4 – For assessment in emergency, up to 72 hours

The person is not free to leave during the period they are sectioned. It is a form of compulsory detention in hospital. The purpose is to ensure the person gets assessment and treatment for a serious mental illness that is putting their health or safety, or the safety of others, at risk.

How long can someone be sectioned for?

The length of time a person can be sectioned depends on which section is used:

  • Section 2 – The person can be detained for up to 28 days for assessment and treatment. This allows doctors to evaluate and treat the person.
  • Section 3 – The person can be detained for up to 6 months for treatment. This can be renewed for further 6 month periods.
  • Section 4 – The person can be detained for up to 72 hours for emergency assessment.

So section 2 allows compulsory admission for up to 28 days, section 3 allows it for up to 6 months at a time, and section 4 is very short-term for emergencies.

How are the sectioning time periods calculated?

The amount of time a person can be detained under each section is calculated from the date the section is applied:

  • Section 2 – Starts from the date the doctor signs the application form for admission.
  • Section 3 – Starts from the date the second medical recommendation is received by hospital managers.
  • Section 4 – Starts from the time the patient arrives at hospital.

The exact expiry date and time should be recorded for each section. The periods do not restart if the person briefly leaves hospital under section 17 leave during the time frame.

When can a section be renewed?

Section 2 cannot be renewed. It lasts for a maximum of 28 days.

Section 3 can be renewed for further 6 month periods. There is no limit on the number of times it can be renewed, as long as the renewal process is followed each time. The responsible clinician must examine the patient and get supporting recommendations from another doctor and an Approved Mental Health Professional to authorize each renewal.

Section 4 cannot be renewed, since it is very short term. But it can be followed immediately by a section 2 or 3 to keep the person in hospital.

What is the process for discharge?

A person detained under sections 2, 3 or 4 cannot simply leave at the end of the section. To be discharged, one of the following must happen:

  • The responsible clinician decides the person no longer meets the criteria and discharges them.
  • An Approved Mental Health Professional decides the section should end.
  • The nearest relative requests discharge under section 23 and this is allowed.
  • A Mental Health Tribunal rules the person should be discharged.

Without one of these actions, the patient remains detained even after the section expires. Discharge requires positive action by the responsible medical officer, AMHP, nearest relative or tribunal.

What safeguards are in place?

There are a number of safeguards to ensure sections are applied appropriately:

  • Strict criteria must be met for detention under each section
  • Two doctors and an AMHP must agree for most types of detention
  • Sections must be documented with reasons and expiry dates recorded
  • The patient or nearest relative can request discharge or appeal to a tribunal
  • Sections must be used in the least restrictive way and for the shortest time possible

These help protect the human rights of the patient and ensure detention is genuinely needed.


In summary, a person can be detained under the Mental Health Act for:

  • Up to 28 days under section 2
  • Up to 6 months under section 3 (renewable)
  • Up to 72 hours under section 4

There are strict criteria and processes for sectioning someone. Safeguards are in place to protect patients’ rights. The length of sections is carefully defined, but discharge requires positive action by doctors, AMHPs, nearest relatives or tribunal.