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BACKGROUND: In the management of patients with anxiety and depression in general practice, the emphasis has been on improving detection and appropriate use of drug therapies by health professionals. Patients' own perceptions of their problems and what services they would prefer have not often been sought. AIM: To explore patient perspectives in relation to their healthcare needs in anxiety and depression. DESIGN OF STUDY: Semi-structured individual and focus group interviews. SETTING: A total of 27 patients from an urban four-partner group general practice who were identified as having anxiety and depression by a practice population questionnaire survey. METHOD: All interviews were transcribed and the major themes were summarised using grounded theory analysis. RESULTS: Patients seek many different ways of coping with their problems but view their general practice as a focal point for help. Their experiences are dominated by the struggle to control unwelcome and intrusive thoughts and to live in a hostile and threatening world. They also have distinct preferences regarding their health needs and there is universal scepticism about drug therapies. CONCLUSION: Patients describe personal and professional barriers to seeking help and have particular views on the treatment options. This perspective contrasts with the current professional emphasis on detection and drug use. This view is therefore central to informing the debate on management of neurotic disorders in primary care and on improving the care of these patients.