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Will I be hospitalized for being depressed?

Dear Alice,

Sometimes I feel like I don't want to live anymore. I know in my heart that I would never kill myself. Sometimes I just feel unhappy. I am at college and would like to speak to someone, but I am scared that they would make me go to the hospital. I don't want to do that, but I just need to talk. Do you think if I mentioned this, they would hospitalize me?

Dear Reader, 

You’re not alone in feeling unhappy or hopeless—many people experience these feelings at some point in their lives. Recognizing and naming these feelings can be a helpful place to start. However, if these feelings continue to escalate, seeking care as soon as possible is advised. You may also want to reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for more immediate support. Meeting with a mental health professional and sharing how you feel doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll automatically go to the hospital. They may encourage trying a few treatment options before considering a recommendation for hospitalization—every person and experience is different. Reaching out for help isn’t always easy, so kudos to you for being honest with yourself about the way you’re feeling. 

Seeking support from a mental health professional can seem intimidating, perhaps because of misconceptions or your own fears about what happens in these appointments. While there are some individuals whose conditions are best treated in a hospital setting, there are just as many who aren’t at risk for hurting themselves or others. These individuals can be treated in mental health professional appointments or using a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and medication. Generally speaking, simply sharing with a mental health professional that you've had thoughts about not wanting to live anymore doesn't automatically equal hospitalization. That being said, in your session, they might try to gauge whether or not they believe it to be an emergency situation. Based on those conversations, you may be able to explore some ways of dealing with your thoughts and feelings together. They might also use those conversations to guide what form of support they’ll provide. 

To help clear up some of the mystery around mental health services, here's some information on what you might experience in an initial session related to feelings of sadness or depression: 

  • The provider might ask a series of questions to assess how you’ve been feeling, what motivated you to come in for an appointment, and what kinds of services will best meet your needs. In your case, they may screen for depression by gathering information related to your thoughts of hopelessness, sadness, or emptiness (all common symptoms of depression), and may help you explore the things in your life that are making you feel unhappy, as you noted in your question. 
  • Similar to what you’ve been experiencing, some people who feel depressed also think about ways to hurt or kill themselves, or other people. That's why you may be asked questions such as: "Do you ever feel like you don't want to live anymore?", "Do you have a plan to hurt yourself?", "Have you ever attempted suicide in the past?", or "How long have you been feeling this way?". Your answers to questions along these lines could help a mental health professional assess whether or not your feelings equate to the level of an emergency that needs immediate treatment. 
  • After the initial meeting, you may work together to determine if or when you need to have a follow-up appointment. You may also talk about fees for services, people you can call in an emergency, and your meeting schedule. 

Through the treatment process, a mental health professional may offer a variety of strategies to help you feel better, which may include taking antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication. They may also recommend that you join a support group for additional social support. In some situations, they might recommend that you see another mental health professional who may better support you. If they refer you to another professional, it doesn’t mean that they don’t like you or aren’t skilled at their job. They often want to make sure you get the best care possible and sometimes they may know of a more appropriate resource. 

If after trying several different strategies a patient’s symptoms continue to get worse and their suicide risk is high, a mental health professional may then consider having the individual stay in an inpatient treatment facility. The goal is to help the individual get more specialized treatment and also minimize their ability to end their life. 

All that said, a counseling center on your campus or in your community may be a good place to start to find more resources and support. You may also choose to check out some other resources, such as Psychology Today, the American Psychological Association, or the American Psychiatric Association, that may help you find a mental health professional that would be the best fit for you. 

Hopefully having more information about what to expect when visiting a mental health professional may help you feel more empowered to take that next brave step and get help. If you’re still feeling unsure, you may consider speaking with others who have seen a mental health professional in the past. They may be able to recommend someone with whom they’ve had a good experience. With the assistance of a professional, your sources of social support, and the right treatment, you may start to feel better.

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Last updated Sep 08, 2023
Originally published May 12, 2000