Background: Little is known about the course and outcome of untreated anxiety and depression in patients with and without a self-perceived need for care. The aim of the present study was to examine the one-year course of untreated anxiety and depression, and to determine predictors of a poor outcome.Method: Baseline and one-year follow-up data were used of 594 primary care patients with current anxiety or depressive disorders at baseline (established by the Composite Interview Diagnostic Instrument (CIDI)), from the Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety (NESDA). Receipt of and need for care were assessed by the Perceived Need for Care Questionnaire (PNCQ).Results: In depression, treated and untreated patients with a perceived treatment need showed more rapid symptom decline but greater symptom severity at follow-up than untreated patients without a self-perceived mental problem or treatment need. A lower education level, lower income, unemployment, loneliness, less social support, perceived need for care, number of somatic disorders, a comorbid anxiety and depressive disorder and symptom severity at baseline predicted a poorer outcome in both anxiety and depression. When all variables were considered at the same time, only baseline symptom severity appeared to predict a poorer outcome in anxiety. In depression, a poorer outcome was also predicted by more loneliness and a comorbid anxiety and depressive disorder.Conclusion: In clinical practice, special attention should be paid to exploring the need for care among possible risk groups (e.g. low social economic status, low social support), and support them in making an informed decision on whether or not to seek treatment. © 2010 van Beljouw et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.