Objectives: To provide the first national profile of the characteristics of young people (aged 12-25 years) accessing headspace centre services - the Australian Government's innovation in youth mental health service delivery - and investigate whether headspace is providing early service access for adolescents and young adults with emerging mental health problems. Design and participants: Census of all young people accessing a headspace centre across the national network of 55 centres comprising a total of 21 274 headspace clients between 1 January and 30 June 2013. Main outcome measures: Reason for presentation, Kessler Psychological Distress Scale, stage of illness, diagnosis, functioning. Results: Young people were most likely to present with mood and anxiety symptoms and disorders, self-reporting their reason for attendance as problems with how they felt. Client demographic characteristics tended to reflect population-level distributions, although clients from regional areas and of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background were particularly well represented, whereas those who were born outside Australia were underrepresented. Conclusion: headspace centres are providing a point of service access for young Australians with high levels of psychological distress and need for care in the early stages of the development of mental disorder.