This paper describes the needs assessment phase of a mental health promotion programme for rural communities in Ireland. As part of a larger study encompassing four rural communities, a cross-sectional study of the mental health beliefs and perceptions of 1014 people was carried out. Employing a combination of interviewer-administered questionnaire and the vignette method, the needs assessment explores the levels of awareness, current practices, attitudes and stigma concerning depression and suicide among a randomly selected quota sample of community members. Lower levels of awareness, less confidence in dealing with mental health issues, negative attitudes to helpseeking and social stigma emerge as particular issues for men and the under 40 age group. Women were found to have more positive attitudes generally, were more likely to use informal social support networks and were more open about discussing mental health matters. The predominant interpretation of the depression vignette was to view it as a mental health problem with good prospects for recovery given appropriate help. Social relationships, negative thinking patterns and social stresses were perceived as being particularly important in explaining the origins of depression. The implications of the findings for planning the intervention phase of the project are considered.