Background: The overall number of involuntary admissions is increasing in many European countries. Patients with severe mental illnesses more often progress to stages in which acute, coercive treatment is warranted. The number of studies that have examined this development and possible consequences in terms of optimizing health care delivery in emergency psychiatry is small and have a number of methodological shortcomings. The current study seeks to examine factors associated with compulsory admissions in the Amsterdam region, taking into account a comprehensive model with four groups of predictors: patient vulnerability, social support, responsiveness of the health care system and treatment adherence. Methods/Design: This paper describes the design of the Amsterdam Study of Acute Psychiatry-I (ASAP-I). The study is a prospective cohort study, with one and two-year follow-up, comparing patients with and without forced admission by means of a selected nested case-control design. An estimated total number of 4,600 patients, aged 18 years and over, consecutively coming into contact with the Psychiatric Emergency Service Amsterdam (PESA) are included in the study. From this cohort, a randomly selected group of 125 involuntary admitted subjects and 125 subjects receiving non-coercive treatment are selected for further evaluation and comparison. First, socio-demographic, psychopathological and network characteristics, and prior use of health services will be described for all patients who come into contact with PESA. Second, the in-depth study of compulsory versus voluntary patients will examine which patient characteristics are associated with acute compulsory admission, also taking into account social network and healthcare variables. The third focus of the study is on the associations between patient vulnerability, social support, healthcare characteristics and treatment adherence in a two-year follow-up for patients with or without involuntarily admittance at the index consultation. Discussion: The current study seeks to establish a picture of the determinants of acute compulsory admissions in the Netherlands and tries to gain a better understanding of the association with the course of illness and patient's perception of services and treatment adherence. The final aim is to find specific patient and health care factors that can be influenced by adjusting treatment programs in order to reduce the number of involuntary admissions.