The study described here is part of an evaluation of a pilot project concerning the implementation of three psychiatric crisis units in general hospitals in Belgium. The purpose was to evaluate the short-term outcome of a multidisciplinary crisis intervention for psychiatric patients referred to the emergency department. Patients were assessed with the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-28) at the time of referral to the emergency department and again 1 month later. Patients referred for a psychiatric crisis intervention were compared with patients receiving short-term psychiatric inpatient treatment in another hospital. Patients referred to the emergency department showed a considerable degree of psychiatric disturbance. The General Health Questionnaire appeared to be a good measure for assessment of the "state" aspect of a psychiatric disturbance. The state of distress was significantly reduced one month after referral in both treatment conditions. Nevertheless, an important proportion of patients remained in a state of considerable distress. The results indicate that a short hospital-based crisis intervention approach is comparable with more traditional acute inpatient treatment. However, in the case of more severely distressed patients it may be insufficient. Several limitations of this study are also discussed (risk of overestimation of improvement, influence of time or pre-existing differences).