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Women of Indian origin are said to have a lower rate of recognized common mental disorders and a higher frequency of consultation in primary care than white British. The aim of this study was to evaluate factors, including explanatory models (patient perspectives) of illness, associated with common mental disorders and with frequency of consultation among women of Indian origin in primary care. The investigation was conducted in a general practice in West London with a large Indian population. Consecutive woman attenders of Indian descent were screened with the General Health Questionnaire-12 to identify probable cases of psychiatric morbidity. 100 patients were interviewed with the Revised Clinical Interview Schedule (CIS-R), a specific tool for the diagnosis of common mental disorders, and the Short Explanatory Model Interview, which elicits the individual's conceptualization of his or her illness. Those patients who satisfied CIS-R criteria were classified as 'cases', the others as 'controls'. Common mental disorders were documented in 30% of patients. The general practitioner's diagnosis of common mental disorders had a sensitivity of 17% and a specificity of 91%. Individuals with common mental disorders had a higher frequency of consultation (P = 0.017), were less likely to see depression as an indication for medical intervention and were more likely to withhold some of their concerns from the general practitioner. Incorrect diagnosis by the GP was most likely to occur when patients did not disclose all their complaints. These associations were all statistically significant after adjustment for possible confounders by multiple linear and logistic regression. Women of Indian origin in this sample had rates of common mental disorders similar to those in other UK populations. Differing conceptualizations of common mental disorders may contribute to their underrecognition in women of Indian origin.