Background. In people with learning disability one of the most frequent reasons for psychiatric referral is challenging behaviour. Aims. To determine what proportion of people with challenging behaviour actually have psychiatric symptoms. Method. Using an instrument specifically designed for use by informants, a sample of 320 people with administratively defined learning disability, with and without challenging behaviour, was surveyed for the presence of psychiatric symptoms. Results. Increasing severity of challenging behaviour was associated with increased prevalence of psychiatric symptoms, depression showing the most marked association. Anxiety symptoms were associated with the presence of self-injurious behaviour. Conclusions. There is clearly the potential for reducing challenging behaviour by improved identification and treatment of coexisting psychiatric disorders. The possibility of modifying diagnostic criteria for depression in people with learning disability, by including aspects of challenging behaviour, merits attention. Declaration of interest. The project was funded by grants from the Department of Health.