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OBJECTIVE: To analyze a comprehensive multivariate model of the use of mental health-related ambulatory care services by children ages 6-17. STUDY SETTING: The 1987 National Medical Expenditure Survey, a national probability sample of the U.S. civilian noninstitutionalized population. STUDY DESIGN: A cross-sectional survey of a national probability sample of the U.S. population. Key independent variables include person-level mental health status, health care coverage, family income, and use of mental health services by other family members. DATA COLLECTION: Four in-person interviews were conducted during 1987 using structured questionnaires. A designated family respondent was used to answer questions for other family members, including children. PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: Children with poor mental health in high-income families were more than three times as likely to have a mental health-related visit than children with poor mental health in low-income families. The number of mental health-related visits and the likelihood of seeing a mental health specialist also increased along with family income. Mental health use by other family members was strongly associated with use. CONCLUSIONS: The results from this study provide strong evidence that the socioeconomic status of children is an important factor in explaining unmet need for mental health services.