Will I Be Committed to a Mental Hospital if I Tell a Therapist about my Suicidal Thoughts?

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Helsingør Psychiatric Hospital. Photo used with permission from JDS Architects.

You may be seriously considering suicide and yet not want to tell a therapist, because you fear landing in a mental hospital.

If you go to a therapist or psychiatrist and tell them you are seriously thinking of killing yourself, that does not necessarily mean you will be hospitalized. Hospitals are very strict these days about who they admit, and insurance companies are equally strict about covering a hospital stay. Some people joke that it is harder to get into a mental hospital than Harvard University.

Who Gets Hospitalized

Adults

Suicidal thoughts are not usually enough to warrant psychiatric hospitalization for adults. Instead, you would need to be in imminent danger (or in some states substantial danger) of trying to kill yourself. This generally means you are intent on acting very soon on your suicidal wishes. Perhaps you already have a plan on how you would kill yourself, you have whatever you need to carry out that plan, and you have some intent to follow through on that plan very soon.

If so, then yes, hospitalization would almost certainly be necessary. If you do not consent to be hospitalized (that is, you will not voluntarily admit yourself), then yes, a mental health professional would need to intervene to get you to a safe place. The reason for this is that serious suicidal intent is almost always temporary, as long as the person stays alive. Consider that even among people who attempt suicide and survive, more than 90% do not go on to die by suicide.

So, if you are thinking of killing yourself but do not intend to act on those thoughts any time soon, then a mental health professional most likely will not try to have you hospitalized. Instead, they will work to understand your reasons for wanting to die, to help you feel better, and to build up your coping skills.

If you a serious danger to yourself, however, then every effort will be made to keep you safe until the crisis passes and you are safe to be out on your own again.

Children and Adolescents

At many psychiatric hospitals, the standards for hospital admission tend to be more relaxed for children and adolescents. The younger a person is, the more alarming it can be that they would consider suicide. And children and adolescents are more impulsive than adults. So what I wrote above about strict criteria for hospitalization may not apply to young patients, because of the extra caution that they warrant. 

If You Do Need Hospitalization…

What are your fears of being hospitalized? Would you really rather die than go to a psychiatric hospital? If so, why?

Doctor In Discussion With Nurse At Nurses Station

Perhaps you fear being locked away for good, or at least for a long time. Most people do not stay in a mental hospital more than a few days, even if they come in with serious suicidal thoughts. Once upon a time, a great deal of patients did remain hospitalized for months and even years. Those days ended in the 1990s, when it became apparent that many hospitals were keeping patients longer than necessary for the sole purpose of collecting insurance money.

Perhaps you think mental hospitals are like that in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or other Hollywood movies. But these days, hospitals do not use straitjackets on patients. In fact, they are not supposed to use restraints unless a patient is out of control and potentially violent. There are no bars on the windows unless it is a very old building. And nobody is forced to take “shock therapy,” more technically called electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). (Some people choose to receive ECT. It is a much safer, more humane procedure than it used to be, though it still can have dangerous side effects.)

If You are Admitted to a Psychiatric Hospital

Doctor psychiatric patient interviewThere are some important things to know about what happens in a psychiatric hospital. If you are admitted, a nurse or therapist will interview you about your problems, thoughts and feelings, and symptoms. You will be asked to turn over anything that could be used to try to hurt or kill yourself. This includes things like shoelaces, sharp items (called “sharps”), and belts. You will be evaluated to see if medication might help you. Depending on the hospital, you may participate in individual and group psychotherapy. You may have a room to yourself, or you may share.

There are definitely things that are scary about being in a psychiatric hospital. Staying with strangers, some of whom may have more serious problems than you, is frightening. Just as happens in any hospital, you do not have much privacy.

The unit is locked, and that can feel confining. You cannot come and go as you please. If you are very dangerous to yourself, you might have someone checking on you every 15 minutes or fewer, or even shadowing you.

All of these measures are to keep you safe from yourself. Suicides occur even in psychiatric hospitals, so every effort is made to protect you.

Someday, even if it is hard to imagine now, you may even be thankful that you were protected in this way.

 

© Copyright 2013 Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW, All Rights Reserved. Written for www.speakingofsuicide.com

 

Photos purchased from Fotolia.com

 

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6 Reader Comments

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  1. Justin says:

    I’m 18 and I’m having suicidal thoughts more and more often and am having a stronger urge to act on them. What will happen if I say that I’m feeling this way. My friend was about to attempt suicide a year ago when he was 17 but stopped and called the suicide hotline and then the police since he was in danger. Well he was put in a bahvioral complex for two weeks and then put in a safety plan and antidepressants. I was wondering what happens since I’m no longer an adolescent.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Hi Justin, I’m sorry you’re having not only suicidal thoughts, but also urges to act on them. Whether you would be committed to a hospital depends on how severe your suicidal thinking is. Generally speaking, you’d need to say that you intend to attempt suicide within a short period of time. It depends where you live, but many states permit involuntary commitment only when a person be in imminent danger of suicide or harm to others.

      That said, you didn’t make clear whether you want to enter a psychiatric hospital. The admissions criteria for voluntary admission tend to be more lax than those for involuntary commitment, because with commitment, a person’s civil rights are suspended and the person is deprived of liberty against his or her will. Still, admissions criteria vary by hospital.

      I hope that information is helpful. I will add that admissions criteria for adolescents and adults aren’t really different from each other, but some hospitals appear to be more liberal in admitting adolescents, because the impulsivity of that age group makes them more vulnerable to acting on suicidal thoughts.

      Good luck to you!

  2. Atra says:

    Don’t seek therapy. If you’re forced to see a mental health professional, don’t tell them the truth. They can and do commit you, and while I can’t speak for every “looney bin,” my experience in them can be summed up as “torture chamber” – at least 100 times worse than anything I saw on TV. I will never seek help again. I will suffer in silence until I finally just fall off. It’s better than going back to one of those places. From that day forward, I will only tell lies to medical professionals who ask about my mental state, because I can’t trust them.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Very sad response, Atra. I’m sorry you have had such negative experiences. This is precisely why I hate when a therapist overreacts – people who need help are less likely, if likely at all, to seek help again.

      For you and for others who read your comment, I will say this: There ARE mental health professionals who use hospitalization as an absolute last resort; some do not ever commit someone to a hospital involuntarily, for precisely the reasons you described.

      I will also go out on a limb and say, for those who do want hospitalization or end up hospitalized, there are hospitals that are not torture chambers. Each is different. I know people who have been greatly helped by hospitalization. Sadly, I also know people who have been greatly hurt.

      Sometimes when someone is making the ultimate life or death decision, they feel a profound need to talk about it. They might talk with friends, and they might be fortunate to have friends who can truly listen without judgment or pat advice. They might, on the other hand, have friends who react in ways that are hurtful: “How could you want to die? Don’t you know how selfish you are to hurt people like that?” “You just want attention.” “You need to get over this.”

      A mental health professional who is skilled at working with suicidal individuals – and who does NOT overreact, freak out, or otherwise resort to hospitalization unnecessarily – can be helpful to a person who is dealing with suicidal urges.

      The professional can listen and empathize without judgment or alarm, help the client go over pros and cons of suicide (yes, there clearly are benefits to explore), and explore with the client his or her ambivalence. Those are first steps. The clinician can also work toward helping the client to heal the wounds or illness that make suicide appealing, to rediscover meaning and value in life, to want to live again, and to come up with coping methods for safety and growth.

      None of this can happen if therapists have made people too afraid to seek their help.

      So please, if you are a therapist reading this, consider the great harm that can come from seeking commitment for a client without it being absolutely necessary – and keep in mind that it is absolutely necessary very, very rarely!

  3. YVONNE says:

    i tried to commit suicide last month. i still want to commit suicide i am so tired with my life, i hate myself, i hate going anywhere, i hate dealing with the public but i still have to work to pay for my medicle insurance, i use to work full time with the public but now i am down to 3 day’s a week…and it is so hard for me to do that. i just want to be alone, no one around me. and not have to go anywhere that has a crowd… it suck’s i dont know what to do, i can no longer handle working and dealing with the public, or anything or anyone, but i cant stop working, because i have to pay my medicle insurance to go to my doctor’s. without them to talk to and get medication to help me with my bipolar nos, with severe depression and anixity and pannic attack’s. so i dont try and commit suicide again, but i think about it all the time, but this time i want to make sure it work’s.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Yvonne, I am so sorry you are hurting so badly. I hope that you continue to get help. Also, if you are in the U.S., you no longer need to get health insurance through your job. Because of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), you can get insurance on the exchange. This liberates a lot of people who had been shackled to their job purely to avoid losing their insurance.

      I have published a list of resources for people who are thinking about suicide here. It contains resources for getting help via hotlines, email, chat rooms online, and other websites. Please check them out. You never know what or who might help turn things around for you.

      p.s. I edited your comment to avoid giving graphic details about your attempt method and its aftermath. This material can trigger others who are seriously considering suicide or have already made an attempt.

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