Objective: Although mental health literacy has increased in recent years, mental illness is often under-recognised. There has been little research conducted on mental illness in rural areas; however, this can be most prominent in rural areas due to factors such as greater stigma and stoicism. The aim of this study is to create a profile of those who are most and least likely to self-identify mental health problems among rural residents with moderate- to-high psychological distress. Design: Secondary analysis of a longitudinal postal survey. Setting: Rural and remote New South Wales, Australia. Participants: Four-hundred-and-seventy-two community residents. Main outcome measure: Participants completed the K10 Psychological Distress Scale, as well as the question ‘In the past 12 months have you experienced any mental health problems?’ The characteristics of those who reported moderate/high distress scores were explored by comparing those who did and did not experience mental health problems recently. Results: Of the 472 participants, 319 (68%) with moderate/high distress reported a mental health problem. Reporting a mental health problem was higher among those with recent adverse life events or who perceived more stress from life events while lower among those who attributed their symptoms to a physical cause. Conclusions: Among a rural sample with moderate/high distress, one-third did not report a mental health problem. Results suggest a threshold effect, whereby mental health problems are more likely to be acknowledged in the context of additional life events. Ongoing public health campaigns are necessary to ensure that symptoms of mental illness are recognised in the multiple forms that they take.