What Is Psychiatric Intensive Care?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 25 October 2019
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Psychiatric intensive care offers treatment on a locked ward for high risk patients. They may elect for hospitalization to treat severe mental health issues or could be brought to the unit by care providers, police officers, or family members. Stays in such units tend to be brief, allowing time to assess and stabilize the patient to make it possible to move to a ward with lower security measures. These wards are not designed for punishment or incarceration.

High staffing levels are a common characteristic of psychiatric intensive care units. Nurses, psychiatrists, and consultants work on the ward, and each patient may have one or more dedicated staff members providing care. The unit is kept secured with locked doors, narrow windows, and other features. Some include seclusion rooms or private areas for patients who need to be alone, such as people experiencing sensory overload who are in a state of severe distress.

People can be sent to a psychiatric intensive care unit if they are considered a high danger to themselves or others. At initial intake, an assessment can provide information about the patient’s mental state and specific concerns. Patients at risk of suicide may be placed on a watch, with a staff member providing supervision at all times. People entering the ward are checked for weapons or tools patients might use to injure themselves and others, to reduce the risk of incidents on the ward.


Protections in a psychiatric intensive care unit can include a variety of options. Personnel receive special training in working with individuals who have severe mental illness so they can provide appropriate care while safeguarding their safety and that of others. Sedatives may be considered for patients who are aggressive or highly stressed. The use of restraints is less common in psychiatry than it once was, but can be considered an option for patients who do not respond to other treatments; a patient who is compulsively skin picking, for example, might be placed in restraints to prevent injuries.

While in psychiatric intensive care, the patient may attend intensive therapy sessions, start medications, and meet with people like social workers. The goal is to achieve some stability, with the patient making progress in treatment, to make it possible to transfer the patient to a step-down unit. On unlocked wards, patients enjoy more freedom of movement and association, can typically receive visitors, and work on addressing the issues that brought them to a state of psychiatric crisis originally.



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