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Complaining about NHS mental health services - patients accessing services voluntarily

This advice applies to England

This page tells you how to make a complaint if you’re receiving mental health services as a voluntary patient, that is, if you haven’t been detained under the Mental Health Act 1983.

What is an informal patient?

If you don’t object to being admitted to hospital for psychiatric care, you’re called a voluntary patient or an informal patient.

What can you complain about?

You may have concerns about any aspect of your care and treatment if you’re an informal patient. This includes things like:

  • you’re given treatment that you didn’t consent to
  • you’re a child under 16 and you’ve been admitted to an adult psychiatric ward
  • you’re in hospital and without good reason, you’re refused permission to be given home leave. But remember that if the hospital staff believe that you’re too ill to leave hospital or that you are a danger to yourself or others, you could be prevented from leaving even if you’re a voluntary patient
  • you’re in hospital and you’re refused visitors during normal hospital visiting hours. But visits could be refused in exceptional circumstances. This could include if the visit is considered to be bad for your health or a security risk, for example, if the visitor is believed to be bringing in illegal drugs
  • you’re in hospital and you’re not allowed to make or receive phone calls or send or receive letters
  • you’re in hospital and the food you are given doesn’t respect your cultural or religious needs
  • your GP refuses to treat you just because you have a mental health problem
  • your treatment by the Community Mental Health Team.

There are separate pages about where to start to complain generally about:

Or if your complaint is about another NHS service, use the general information that applies.

How to complain

Depending on what happened and what you want to achieve, you may have different options about how to raise concerns. For example, you could:

  • use the NHS complaints procedure
  • complain to the Health and Parliamentary Ombudsman if you’re not satisfied with the organisation's response to your complaint made under the NHS complaints procedure
  • get advice about taking legal action, for example, for clinical negligence
  • report the problem to another body, like the Care Quality Commission, NHS England or a clinical commissioning group. This will depend on which organisation you want to complain about. They may ask you to make a complaint to the organisation providing the service before they will investigate your complaint
  • report concerns to a professional's regulatory body if your concern is about their professional behaviour. For example, the regulatory body of nurses is the Nursing and Midwifery Council.

Medical records

If you’re thinking of making a complaint about the medical treatment which you did or didn’t receive, you may find it helpful to obtain a copy of your medical records first. In some cases, you won’t be allowed to see these records, for example, if this would be likely to cause serious harm to you or someone else.

Get help

Depending on the circumstances, it can be difficult or distressing to make a complaint. It is best to get help to do this. There are organisations that specialise in advice to people with mental health problems. Some areas have mental health advocacy services who work with informal patients as well as detained patients. Ward staff will be able to tell you about support you can get, or look out for posters and leaflets on the ward. Or you could contact your local Healthwatch.

Next steps

Other useful information

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