objective: this study aimed at evaluating the characteristics of mental disturbances in a low socio-economic level sample of persons attended by a community family health program called programa de saúde da família (psf), in order to identify their need for care. method: trained research assistants interviewed 400 residents, indicated by the psf team. subjects were of a low economic level catchment area of a town in the interior of the state of minas gerais, in brazil. interviewers applied the questionnaire of general health (qsg), which evaluates the characteristics of mental health non-psychotic problems. results: a high percentage of persons (37.8%) had symptomatic global scores in the scale, which indicates the presence of problems in mental health, especially in sub-scales regarding sleep disturbances (41%) and desire of death (38.25%), and less in the sub-scales of distrust in performance (27.75%), psychosomatic disturbances (25.5%) and psychological stress (22%). a significantly higher percentage of men had symptomatic global scores (45.1%) compared to women (32.6%), but a greater percentage of women (44.1%) had symptomatic scores in the sub-scale regarding desire of death compared to men (29.9%). conclusion: the results obtained described important problems in mental health, differentiated by sex, and pointed to the need for mental health care of those persons.