Mental health problems are common in primary health care, particularly anxiety and depression. This study aims to estimate the prevalence of common mental disorders and their associations with socio-demographic characteristics in primary care in Brazil (Family Health Strategy). It involved a multicenter cross-sectional study with patients from Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Fortaleza (Ceará State) and Porto Alegre (Rio Grande do Sul State), assessed using the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12) and the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HAD). The rate of mental disorders in patients from Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Fortaleza and Porto Alegre were found to be, respectively, 51.9%, 53.3%, 64.3% and 57.7% with significant differences between Porto Alegre and Fortaleza compared to Rio de Janeiro after adjusting for confounders. Prevalence proportions of mental problems were especially common for females, the unemployed, those with less education and those with lower incomes. In the context of the Brazilian government's moves towards developing primary health care and reorganizing mental health policies it is relevant to consider common mental disorders as a priority alongside other chronic health conditions.