Restrictive practices

This section reports national data on the use of seclusion (when a person is confined alone in a room or area where free exit is prevented) and restraint (when a person’s freedom of movement is restricted by physical or mechanical means) in specialised mental health public hospital acute service units.

Data are also reported on the treatment of people on an involuntary basis under legislated state and territory Mental Health Acts in public acute and psychiatric hospitals, residential mental health services, and community mental health care services.


People with mental illness and their carers advocate that restrictive practices (involuntary treatment, seclusion and restraint) do not benefit the consumer and that these interventions either always or often infringe on human rights and compromise the therapeutic relationship between the consumer and the clinician (Melbourne Social Equity Institute 2014). The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists acknowledges this point of view in its position statement Minimising the use of seclusion and restraint in people with mental illness (RANZCP 2016), which advocates that seclusion should only be used as a safety measure of last resort where all other interventions have been considered. The Australian National Mental Health Commission’s (NMHC) Statement on seclusion and restraint in mental health (NMHC 2015) calls for leadership across a range of priorities including “national monitoring and reporting on seclusion and restraint across jurisdictions and services”.

Working towards eliminating the use of seclusion is a policy priority in Australian mental health care and has been supported by changes to legislation, policy and clinical practice. Reduction efforts were supported by the Australian Health Ministers’ Advisory Council, through its key mental health committees, the Safety and Quality Partnership Standing Committee (SQPSC) and Mental Health Information Strategy Standing Committee   (Allan et al. 2017, SQPSC 2017). Twelve national forums on restrictive practices have been held, the most recent in November 2018, to share results and support broader change efforts to shift seclusion and restraint out of mental health units entirely. It is anticipated that the Mental Health National Cabinet Reform Committee being convened by National Cabinet to deliver a new National Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Agreement by November 2021 will continue the initiative to reduce the use of seclusion and restraint.

Data on the use of seclusion, mechanical and physical restraint by hospital were reported for the first time in December 2018. Public reporting enables services to review their individual results against other states and territories, national rates and like services, thereby supporting service reform and quality improvement agendas.

Data downloads

Restrictive practices 2019–20 tables (689KB XLS)

Restrictive practices 2019–20 section (376KB PDF)

Data source and key concepts related to this section

Data coverage includes the time period 2008–09 to 2019–20. This section was last updated in January 2021.

Key points

  • Almost 1 in 5 (19.3%) residential mental health care episodes were for people with an involuntary mental health legal status in 2018–19.
  • 44.8% of separations and 56.6% of patient days in admitted hospital acute units were for people with an involuntary mental health legal status in 2018–19.
  • 8.1 seclusion events per 1,000 bed days were reported for acute specialised mental health hospital services in 2019–20, down from 13.9 in 2009–10.
  • 4.9 hours was the average seclusion duration in 2019–20.
  • 11.0 physical restraint events per 1,000 bed days and 0.7 mechanical restraint events per 1,000 bed days were reported in 2019–20.

Involuntary mental health care

States and territories have individual legislation on the treatment of people with mental illness; all have provisions relating to the treatment of people in an involuntary capacity. This means that under some specific circumstances, treatment for mental illness—including medication and therapeutic interventions—can be provided under a treatment order without the person’s consent in hospital, residential care or in the community. A person’s mental health legal status indicates if their treatment was on an involuntary basis.

Each state and territory’s Mental Health Act and associated regulations provide the legislative frameworks that safeguard the rights and govern the treatment of people with mental illness. Legislation varies between states and territories but all contain provisions for the assessment, admission and treatment of people on an involuntary basis, which is defined in this report as ‘persons who are detained in hospital or compulsorily treated in the community under mental health legislation for the purpose of assessment or provision of appropriate treatment or care’.

In Australia, people receive treatment on an involuntary basis both in admitted settings and in the community. In 2018–19, around 1 in 5 residential mental health care episodes (19.3%) and 1 in 7 community mental health care service contacts (14.0%) were involuntary (Figure RP.1).

Figure RP.1: Mental health care measures, by mental health legal status (per cent) 2018-19.

Stacked bar chart showing the proportion of care by mental health legal status in two service settings in 2018–19. Residential mental health care episodes: 80.7% voluntary, 19.3% involuntary. Community mental health care contacts: 86.0% voluntary, 14.0% involuntary. Refer to Table RP.1.

Visualisation not available for printing

Source data: Restrictive practices 2019–20 tables (689KB XLS)

Involuntary care is more common in admitted settings. A hospital separation is coded as involuntary if the patient has received involuntary treatment at any time during the admission; however not all patients remain involuntary for the full period of their admission to hospital. In 2018–19, over 2 in 5 (44.8%) separations in Acute units and almost 2 in 7 (28.3%) separations in Other (non-acute) units were involuntary.

Data are now available on the proportion of admitted patient days that were involuntary. In 2018–19, 56.6% of patient days in Acute units and 44.8% of patient days in Other (non-acute) units were involuntary. People aged 35–39 years and 40–44 years had the highest proportions of involuntary separations and involuntary patient days in both Acute units and Other (non-acute) units.