SUMMARY The changes in family burden and participation in care of relatives to both voluntarily and compulsorily admitted patients were investigated as part of a longitudinal study of the quality of the mental health services in a Swedish county performed between 1986 and 1997. The relationship between the relative's mental health and family burden, participation in care and need of own support was also investigated. The results showed similar and high levels of burden and a non-sufficient participation in care in both periods investigated despite the ongoing changes in the delivery of psychiatric services and a change in the compulsory legislation in Sweden during the period. More relatives experienced an own need of care and support from the psychiatric services in the 1997 investigation. Relatives who experienced mental health problems of their own more often experienced other forms of burden, experienced less participation in the patient's treatment and also more often had own needs of care and support. It is concluded that interventions in families where relatives experience mental health problems will be useful, since a well-functioning network around the mentally ill person has shown to reduce relapse.