ObjectiveThis study had two aims. Firstly, to explore how young people experienced the onset of mental health problems and to investigate their initial interactions with the health system; and secondly, to use thesefindings to construct a pre-care model that can be used by nurses and other health care professionals todesign appropriate interventions.DesignGrounded theory method was used to develop a theory of young peoples experience of the pathway to mental health care. Data were obtained through in-depth semi-structured interviews.SettingParticipants were recruited through two community health centres in a Sydney metropolitan area healthservice.SubjectsThe purposive sample consisted of eight males and twelve females between the ages of eighteen andtwenty five (mean age was 21).Main outcome measures - FindingsThe categories identified from analysis of the interviews were (a) first sign - often involved denialor fear in the early stages and self medication with alcohol or other drugs; (b) recognition - ofthe symptoms as a sign of mental illness; (c) understanding - discovering information about theillness; and (d) resolution - when care is successfully accessed. Barriers and facilitating factors either delay or assist movement from one stage to the next. The maze to care model is suggested as a guide to action for health professionals. It can direct attention to broader social and systems interventions or, at the individual level, assist assessment.ConclusionsThe study offers insights into the experiences of a small group of individuals and hence has limitationshowever the development of a model which can be tested in practice demonstrates that grounded theorycan be a useful research approach when used to develop frameworks for action in nursing and mentalhealth care.