What is a 5150 retainer? Mental Health Involuntary Hospitalization Explained

What is a 5150 retainer?  Involuntary hospitalization for mental illness explained.  (Illustration by Aisha Yousaf)

What is a 5150 retainer? Involuntary hospitalization for mental illness explained. (Illustration by Aisha Yousaf)

The term “5150 hold” has been used in the media in stories about people in psychological distress who are determined to need involuntary mental health intervention – we examine its origins.

The number relates to the California State Welfare and Institutions Code (WIC) section on “Detention of Persons with Mental Disorders for Evaluation and Treatment.” Code 5150 states that when a person, due to a mental health disorder, poses a danger to others or to themselves, they may be detained against their will for psychiatric evaluation and crisis intervention for a period of up to 72 hours. The decision to detain involuntarily must be made by an expert — a “peace officer” or mental health professional.

(Screenshot: legislature.ca.gov)

5150 is the section number of the California Welfare and Institutions Code that allows a mentally ill person to be detained against their will for a 72-hour psychiatric hospitalization. The code further details how these cases should be handled. (Screenshot: legislature.ca.gov)

The period is sometimes called the “observation period,” according to UCLA Health. During this time, the treatment team assesses whether the patient meets the criteria for involuntary hospitalization. The law states that the patient should be treated “in the least restrictive setting possible” while in care.

The code delves into details, including the guidelines used to determine if someone needs such intervention as well as the oral advice the person should receive. Patients are told they are not under criminal arrest, but are being taken for review by mental health professionals.

(Screenshot: legislature.ca.gov)

This is what people in 5150 police custody are told when they are taken into psychiatric custody. (Screenshot: legislature.ca.gov)

The law also stipulates that the healthcare team must break the hold when the patient no longer meets the criteria for compulsory hospitalization. So if a person is on hold for 72 hours, they can be released earlier. Alternatively, a 5150 can be extended to a 5250, which is a 14 day wait. (Other states have different names for the process of dealing with people deemed to be in mental health crisis. For example, New York has the “Mental Hygiene Act”, in which people can involuntarily be taken care of in a mental health facility.)

Celebrities and 5150 takes

Bam Margera, from Donkey fame, has long struggled during his years in the spotlight. On Sunday, after his family made a public plea for his whereabouts, Margera, who has a history of drug addiction and is going through a divorce and custody battle, was located by police at Trejo’s Tacos in Los Angeles. Authorities said Margera had erratic speech and behavior – in addition to recent suicide threats. Deemed dangerous to himself, he was transported to a mental health facility on hold 5150.

HOLLYWOOD, CA - JANUARY 14: TV personality Bam Margera arrives for the Los Angeles premiere

Bam Margera was placed on hold 5150 on June 4. (Photo: Albert L. Ortega/WireImage)

This protocol has also been used on other stars. Amanda Bynes was placed in psychiatric detention for 72 hours on March 20. All that star, 36, who struggles with bipolar disorder and has been under conservatorship for eight years, reportedly flagged down a car and asked for help. Bynes, who was naked and alone, said she had come out of a psychotic episode. She called the police herself and was taken to a nearby police station, where a mental health crisis team determined she should be placed on 5150 standby. She had been in hospital for more than three weeks , so the detention was extended or she accepted longer-term treatment.

Bynes had previously been taken into involuntary psychiatric detention in 2013 after setting fire to a stranger’s driveway. A guardianship was put in place, under his parents, in stride. During this time, Bynes studied fashion design while undergoing treatment for mental health. Eventually, she was able to live on her own again, and the guardianship ended in early 2022. According to TMZ, her parents have no plans to reinstate the guardianship. She seemed fine so far, so they treated the episode as an anomaly.

Kanye West was placed in involuntary psychological detention in 2016 while suffering from “temporary psychosis due to sleep deprivation and dehydration” – the year the rapper was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He said his treatment was abysmal: “They handcuff you, they drug you, they put you on the bed and they separate you from everyone you know… When you’re like this, you have to have someone whom you trust. It’s cruel and primitive to do that.”

Britney Spears was also placed in consecutive involuntary psychological detention in 2008. Once, after locking herself and her baby in a closet during a custody exchange, and the second time during the same month. At the time, the singer was dealing with a lot — a divorce, a custody battle, postpartum depression, global stardom, relentless paparazzi — and the dazzling eyes of the world on her. Shortly after, she was placed under conservatorship which lasted 13 years.

In 2009, CO actress Mischa Barton has been placed in involuntary psychological detention after being removed from her home. She later said that she was exhausted from working non-stop at the time (she was also the target of vitriol from bloggers at the time), and exhaustion and prescription drugs contributed to the event. Amid what she called “a complete breakdown” and “straight out of girl interrupted“, she was eventually committed to a mental health facility for two weeks. She said it ended up being “an eye opener”, explaining: “I was deeply hurt at first, then I accepted that it was t was the time when I needed to be away from my family and all the pressure. I had gone through the wringer.”

They are not alone. David Hasselhoff was awaiting psychiatry in 2013 and Terminator 3 actor Nick Stahl the same year. Police were called to Scott Disick’s home in 2017 for a possible 5150 and he was taken to hospital, but he was released before the 72 hours. Place Melrose’s Heather Locklear was also placed on hold for 5,150 in 2018.

Going back even further, the late Superman Actress Margot Kidder also underwent a 72-hour psychiatric evaluation in 1996 – long before all modern talk about mental health. Kidder had been found, three days after his disappearance, living in a cardboard box in someone’s yard in Glendale, California. Kidder, who suffered from bipolar disorder, became one of the most prominent mental health advocates. She committed suicide in 2018. The same year, Bad Boys Actor Martin Lawrence was screaming and disoriented on a crowded Los Angeles street with a loaded gun in his pocket when police were called and he was taken to hospital. His rep said he was exhausted and dehydrated, and two days later he was back on set. He was treated for depression, he said.

The term “5150” started popping up in entertainment news in the 2000s, dating back to Spears’ struggles, and was absorbed into the celebrity lexicon. However, long before that, Van Halen named a 5150 album after the code in 1986. It was also the name of Eddie Van Halen’s recording studio. His producer Donn Landee reportedly came up with the name after hearing 5150 on a police scanner, and he and Van Halen jokingly called each other the “5150”. According to Dictionary.com and Urban Dictionary, 5150 has been adopted as an expression for someone struggling with their mental health.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call 911 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

If you or someone you know is struggling with self-harm, call or text the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) hotline at 800-950-6264 or call or text 988.

This story was originally published on March 2

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