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OBJECTIVE:

To investigate how important treatment for emotional distress is to primary care patients in general and to primary care patients with depression, and to evaluate the types of mental health interventions they desire.

DESIGN:

Patient surveys.

SETTING:

Five private primary care practices.

MEASUREMENTS AND MAIN RESULTS:

Patients’ desire for treatment of emotional distress and for specific types of mental health interventions were measured, as well as patients’ ratings of the impact of emotional distress, the frequency of depressive symptoms, and mental health functioning. Of the 403 patients, 33% felt that it was “somewhat important” and 30% thought it was “extremely important” that their physician tries to help them with their emotional distress. Patient desire for this help was significantly related to a diagnosis of depression ( p < .001), perceptions about the impact of emotional distress ( p < .001), and mental health functioning ( p < .001). Among patients with presumptive diagnoses of major and minor depression, 84% and 79%, respectively, felt that it was at least somewhat important that they receive this help from their physician. Sixty-one percent of all primary care patients surveyed and 89% of depressed patients desired counseling; 23% of all patients and 33% of depressed patients wanted a medication; and 11% of all patients and 5% of depressed patients desired a referral to a mental health specialist.

CONCLUSIONS:

A majority of these primary care patients and almost all of the depressed patients felt that it was at least somewhat important to receive help from their physician for emotional distress. The desire for this help seems to be related to the severity of the mental health problem. Most of the patients wanted counseling, but relatively few desired a referral to a mental health specialist.

KEY WORDS: patient expectations; emotional distress; patient treatment desires; primary care mental health problems.