objective: to analyze the meanings of caring for people who seek assistance in mental health, from the perspective of psychologists engaged in their daily activities within public health services. methodological procedures: an exploratory qualitative study was conducted in the city of fortaleza, northeastern brazil, in 2006. the sample was composed of eight female informants, all of which were psychologists working in the state public health network. data was obtained by means of non-directive interviews which were taped and transcribed. categories were obtained from the discourses based on a hermeneutical approach by means of which an interpretive network was constructed. analisys of results: the interpretative network indicated that psychologists recognize their insertion in the field of public health as distinct from the professional field in which they obtained their training and, consequently, as a challenge. the predominant conceptions of care were circumscribed to the technical dimension, although other dimensions, closer to ethical concerns and to those related to respect for the "other" were also identified. conclusions: in the daily routine of assistance within the public health network, care is perceived as a technical attitude. it involves control and nullification of alterity, being more closely aligned to the traditional models of biomedicine and clinical psychology. however, other practices were observed that overcome this attitude. these emerging practices assume a new configuration, oriented towards affection, dialogue between professionals and those seeking assistance and an ethical commitment forged within a political and socio-cultural perspective.