A psychiatric hold is the legal right of a physician to keep a patient in a hospital for a limited period of time where there is evidence that the patient is a danger to themselves or others due to a mental illness.
As a rule, patients may insist on being discharged at will, no matter what their condition. Many patients with psychiatric issues may seek assistance for other medical issues at a hospital emergency room, but the physicians will become concerned that their mental state is such that they require further attention. However, many psychiatric patients will resist treatment for their condition and will attempt to escape the hospital when their condition is challenged.
As such, physicians have a limited right to detain a patient in the hospital at will, with the patient having the right to challenge the decision of the physician in court. However, as the period of the mandatory hold is usually very short (usually 72 hours or fewer), most patients do not challenge it and instead try to work around it.
Patients on a psychiatric hold may still refuse treatment, but are usually subject to supervision requirements and must allow physicians to attempt to communicate with them. This usually allows a hospital to obtain the patient's medical records and, in appropriate situations, have the patient involuntarily committed to a specialized psychiatric facility for treatment.
However, a hospital may become liable for damages if they detain a patient without proper cause. The most common cause is evidence of a suicide attempt, but delusions and paranoia in a patient can also justify a hold.