Alongside mental health policies emphasising the need to focus on people experiencing serious, long-term problems, recent general healthcare policy is leading to the development in the UK of a primary care-led National Health Service. While most primary care-led mental health initiatives have focused on supporting general practitioners (GPs) in managing milder depression and anxiety, this article describes an evaluation comparing primary care-based and secondary care-based services for people with serious long-term problems. A survey of service users was carried out at three points in time using three measures: the Camberwell Assessment of Need, the Verona Satisfaction with Services Scales and the Lancashire Quality of Life Profile. Staff views were sought at two time intervals and carers' views were obtained towards the end of the 2-year study period. The results indicate that both services reduced overall needs and the users' need for information. The primary care service also reduced the need for help with psychotic symptoms whereas the secondary care service reduced users' need for help with benefits and occupation. There were no major differences in terms of satisfaction or quality of life. Primary care-based services therefore appear to have the potential to be as effective as more traditional secondary care services. However, a more comprehensive range of services is required to address the whole spectrum of needs, a conclusion supported by the views of staff and carers.