Palliative care is the active, total care of patients whose disease is not responsive to curative treatment. Psychological problems such as depressive illness, anxiety, delirium, problems coping and body image disturbances are common in the palliative care setting, although they are often missed. A full assessment of these patients should take into account physical, emotional and spiritual factors; therapeutic work should include the patient's family. Pharmacological (antidepressants, anxiolytics and antipsychotics) and cognitive–behavioural treatments are often effective in allaying distress in this group of patients, and can improve coping skills and quality of life. Liaison psychiatrists have a role in teaching palliative care staff to recognise psychiatric disorders. A number of case studies are presented to illustrate these points.