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OBJECTIVE: To examine the sociodemographic, need, risk, and insurance characteristics of persons with severe mental illness and the importance of these characteristics for predicting specialty mental health utilization among this group. DATA SOURCE: The Healthcare for Communities survey, a national study that tracks alcohol, drug, and mental health services utilization. Data come from a telephone survey of adults from 60 communities across the United States, and from a supplemental geographically dispersed sample. STUDY DESIGN: Respondents were categorized as having a severe mental disorder, other mental disorder, or no measured mental disorder. Differences among groups in sociodemographics (gender, marital status, race, education, and income), insurance coverage, need for mental health care (symptoms and perceived need), and risk indicators (suicide ideation, criminal involvement, and aggressive behavior) are examined. Measures of service use for mental health care include emergency room, inpatient, and specialty outpatient care. The importance of sociodemographics, need, insurance status, and risk indicators for specialty mental health care utilization are examined through logistic regression. PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: The severely mentally ill in this study are disproportionately African American, unmarried, male, less educated, and have lower family incomes than those with other disorders and those with no measured mental disorders. In a 12-month period almost three-fifths of persons with severe mental illness did not receive specialty mental health care. One in five persons with severe mental illness are uninsured, and Medicare or Medicaid insures 37 percent. Persons covered by these public programs are over six times more likely to have access to specialty care than the uninsured are. Involvement in the criminal justice system also increases the probability that a person will receive care by a factor of about four, independent of level of need. The average number of outpatient visits for specialty care varies little across type of disorder, and the median number of visits (ten) is equivalent for those with a severe mental illness and those with other disorders. CONCLUSIONS: Persons with severe mental illness have a high level of economic and social disadvantage. Barriers to care, including lack of insurance, are substantial and many do not receive specialty care. Public insurance programs are the major points of leverage for improving access, and policy interventions should be targeted to these programs. Problems of adequate care for the severely mentally ill may be exacerbated by the managed care trend to reductions in intensity of treatment.