BACKGROUND:This report, drawing on a national epidemiological survey conducted in 1997, examines the role of Australian medical general practitioners (GPs) in responding to needs for mental health care. METHODS:We analysed data from the Australian National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing (NSMHWB). The NSMHWB employed clustered probability sampling of all Australian adults, and 10,641 participants were interviewed. The field questionnaire included modules of the Composite International Diagnostic Interview, and instruments assessing disability, service utilisation and perceived needs for care. RESULTS:Eighty-four percent of people with a mental disorder consulted a GP in the year prior to survey, but only 29% consulted in relation to a mental health problem. GP services were seen as more responsive to needs for medication, counselling and information than needs for social interventions and skills training. People with perceived needs for counselling were more likely to consult with other providers, either as alternative or additional consultations to those with a GP. Counselling needs were reported as less well met when people saw a GP alone than when consulting other service providers. CONCLUSIONS:Many people with mental health problems attend primary medical care practitioners without presenting these problems to their physicians. When they do present, perceived needs for medication are rated as well met, but there is substantial unmet perceived need for interventions in social and occupational domains. Perceived needs for counselling are less well met where the GP is the sole provider. To close these identified gaps calls for improvements in primary care physicians' skills and effective collaborative models with other providers.