What is a 5150 hold? The involuntary mental health hospitalization explained.

What is a 5150 hold? The involuntary mental health hospitalization explained. (Illustration by Aisha Yousaf)
What is a 5150 hold? The involuntary mental health hospitalization 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 look at its origins.

The number pertains to the section of the State of California's Welfare and Institutions Code (WIC) on the "Detention of Mentally Disordered Persons for Evaluation and Treatment." Code 5150 states that when a person, as a result of a mental health disorder, is a danger to others or themselves, they can be involuntarily held for psychiatric assessment and crisis intervention for a period of up to 72 hours. The determination to involuntarily detain must be made by an expert — a "peace officer" or mental health professional.

(Screenshot: legislature.ca.gov)
5150 is the number of the section of California's Welfare and Institutions Code which allows a person with a mental challenge to be involuntarily detained for a 72-hour psychiatric hospitalization. The code drills down into more specifics of how these cases should be handled. (Screenshot: legislature.ca.gov)

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

The code drills down into more specifics — including the guidelines used to determine if someone is in need of such intervention as well as the oral advisement the person must be given. Patients are told they are not under criminal arrest, but are being taken for an examination by mental health professions.

(Screenshot: legislature.ca.gov)
This is what people placed on a 5150 hold are told as they are taken into custody on a psych hold. (Screenshot: legislature.ca.gov)

The law also stipulates that the care team must break the hold when the patient no longer meets criteria for involuntary hospitalization. So if a person is on a 72-hour hold, they may be released earlier. Alternatively, a 5150 can be extended to a 5250, which is a 14-day hold. (Other states have different names for the process of handling people deemed in a mental health crisis. For instance, New York has the "Mental Hygiene Law," in which people can involuntarily be taken into treatment at a mental health facility.)

Celebrities and 5150 holds

Bam Margera, of Jackass fame, has long struggled during his years in the spotlight. On Sunday, after his family made a public plea for information of his whereabouts, Margera, who has a history of addiction and is going through a divorce and custody battle, was located by police at Trejo's Tacos in Los Angeles. Authorities said Margera exhibited erratic speech and behavior — on top of recent suicidal threats. Deemed unsafe to himself, he was transported to a mental health facility on a 5150 hold.

HOLLYWOOD, CA - JANUARY 14:  TV personality Bam Margera arrives for The Los Angeles Premiere of
Bam Margera was placed on a 5150 hold on June 4. (Photo: Albert L. Ortega/WireImage)

This protocol has been used on other stars as well. Amanda Bynes was placed on a 72-hour psychiatric hold on March 20. The All That star, 36, who struggles with bipolar disorder and was in a 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 police herself and was taken to a nearby police station, where a mental health crisis team determined she needed to be placed on a 5150 hold. She was in the hospital for over three weeks, so the hold was either extended or she agreed to longer-term treatment.

Bynes had previously been placed in an involuntary psychiatric hold in 2013 after setting a fire in a stranger's driveway. A conservatorship was put in place, under her parents, in the aftermath. During that time, Bynes studied fashion design while getting treatment for mental health. Eventually, she was successfully living on her own again, and the conservatorship ended in early 2022. According to TMZ, her parents are not planning to reinstate the conservatorship. She seemed to be doing well until that point, so they have treated the episode as an anomaly.

Kanye West was placed on an involuntary psych hold 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 are in that state, you have to have someone you trust. It is cruel and primitive to do that."

Britney Spears was also placed on back-to-back involuntary psych holds in 2008. Once, after locking herself and her baby in a closet when it was time for a custody exchange, and the second time within the same month. At the time, the singer was coping with a lot — a divorce, custody battle, postpartum depression, global stardom, relentless paparazzi — and the glaring eyes of the world on her. Soon after, she was put into a conservatorship that lasted 13 years.

In 2009, The O.C. actress Mischa Barton was placed into an involuntary psych hold after being removed from her home. She later said she was burnt out from working nonstop at the time (she was also the target of blogger vitriol in that era), and exhaustion and prescription medications contributed to the event. Amid what she called "a full-on breakdown" and "straight out of Girl, Interrupted," she was ultimately committed for two weeks to a mental health facility. She said it ended up being "an eye-opener" though, explaining, "I was deeply hurt at first, and then I accepted this was time I needed to be away from my family and all the pressure. I had been through the wringer."

They aren't alone. David Hasselhoff was on a psych hold 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 the hospital, but he was released prior to the 72 hours. Melrose Place’s Heather Locklear was also placed on a 5150 hold in 2018.

Going back even further, the late Superman actress Margot Kidder also was held on a 72-hour psychiatric evaluation in 1996 — long before any of the modern discussions about mental health. Kidder had been found, three days after going missing, living in a cardboard box in someone's yard in Glendale, Calif. Kidder, who had bipolar disorder, went on to become one of the most prominent mental health advocates. She died by suicide in 2018. The same year, Bad Boys actor Martin Lawrence was screaming and disoriented in a crowded L.A. street with a loaded pistol in his pocket when police were called and he was hospitalized. His spokesperson said he was exhausted and dehydrated, and two days later he was back on the set. He was treated for depression, he has said.

The term "5150" started popping up in entertainment news a lot in the 2000s, tracing back to Spears's struggles, and became absorbed into the celebrity lexicon. However, long before that, Van Halen named an album 5150 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 themselves the "5150s." Per 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 experiencing 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 your or someone you know is struggling with self-harm, call or text the National Alliance on Mental Illness hotline (NAMI) at 800-950-6264 or call or text 988.

This story was originally published on March 2