OBJECTIVE: To determine the intentions that young people have for seeking help if they were to develop a mental disorder. DESIGN, PARTICIPANTS AND SETTING: National telephone survey of 3746 Australians aged 12-25 years and 2005 co-resident parents, which asked questions about vignettes portraying either depression, depression with alcohol misuse, social phobia or psychosis. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Where participating young people or co-resident parents would seek help if they (or their child) had one of the problems portrayed in the vignettes; barriers to seeking help. RESULTS: For adolescents, family was the main source of intended help, mentioned by 45%-60% (depending on the vignette), while general practitioners were mentioned by only a small minority (4%-13%). For young adults, family was relatively less important (21%-31%) and GPs relatively more so (19%-34%). By contrast, parents frequently mentioned GPs as an intended source of help for their children (by 40%-72% of parents of adolescents and 61%-76% of parents of young adults). For young people, the main barriers to seeking help were embarrassment or concern about what others might think, while the main barrier for parents was resistance from the child. CONCLUSIONS: Recent initiatives to extend the uptake of treatment for mental disorders have been centred around GPs as the initial point of help-seeking. Few young people see GPs as a preferred source of help, and action is needed to alter this perception or to reform mental health services to be more attractive to this age group.