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BACKGROUND: Mild depression and anxiety are common problems in general practice. They can be managed by the general practitioner (GP) alone or referred. Previous quantitative studies have shown a large variation between GPs in terms of referral behaviour. The reasons for this variation are not fully understood. AIM: To describe and analyse GP's decision-making processes when considering who should be treating patients with minor mental illness, using a qualitative method. DESIGN OF STUDY: A qualitative interview study. SETTING: Twenty-three GPs in east London and Essex. METHOD: Subjects were chosen using a purposive sampling strategy and participated in one-to-one semi-structured interviews. A grounded theory approach was used for analysis. RESULTS: Two distinct referral strategies were identified--the 'containment' and the 'conduit' approaches. In addition, referrals were found to be of two types--proactive 'referrals to' and reactive 'referrals away'; for minor mental illness the 'referrals away' were found to predominate. Emotive as well as rational responses informed GP decision making on referral. CONCLUSIONS: Explanations of the variation in referral rates need to recognise the emotive responses of individual GPs to minor mental illness. The contribution of guidelines, which assume consistently rational responses to illness, may therefore be limited.