Background Clinical disorders often share common symptoms and aetiological factors. Bifactor models acknowledge the role of an underlying general distress component and more specific sub-domains of psychopathology which specify the unique components of disorders over and above a general factor. Methods A bifactor model jointly calibrated data on subjective distress from The Mood and Feelings Questionnaire and the Revised Children's Manifest Anxiety Scale. The bifactor model encompassed a general distress factor, and specific factors for (a) hopelessness - suicidal ideation, (b) generalised worrying and (c) restlessness - fatigue at age 14 which were related to lifetime clinical diagnoses established by interviews at ages 14 (concurrent validity) and current diagnoses at 17 years (predictive validity) in a British population sample of 1159 adolescents. Results Diagnostic interviews confirmed the validity of a symptom-level bifactor model. The underlying general distress factor was a powerful but non-specific predictor of affective, anxiety and behaviour disorders. The specific factors for hopelessness - suicidal ideation and generalised worrying contributed to predictive specificity. Hopelessness - suicidal ideation predicted concurrent and future affective disorder; generalised worrying predicted concurrent and future anxiety, specifically concurrent generalised anxiety disorders. Generalised worrying was negatively associated with behaviour disorders. Limitations The analyses of gender differences and the prediction of specific disorders was limited due to a low frequency of disorders other than depression. Conclusions The bifactor model was able to differentiate concurrent and predict future clinical diagnoses. This can inform the development of targeted as well as non-specific interventions for prevention and treatment of different disorders.