The Stepping Up programme is designed to understand how improving access to treatments can improve people's well-being and prevent them from developing more serious mental health problems, writes Mark Needham.

An innovative treatment scheme being trialled by four primary care trusts in the north west.has seen dramatic results in the treatment of people experiencing common mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.

The Stepping Up programme, based in Salford; Manchester; Chester; and Ashton, Leigh and Wigan, has helped to cut.waiting times to just one week and achieve.a 'clinically significant' improvement in 45 per cent of patients.

A report into the programme, published by the Care Services Improvement Partnership North West, provides evidence that specific groups of patients respond best to a range of treatment options including counselling and talking therapies, rather than solely being prescribed medication..

Patients are also offered access to a range of treatments including social support, prescribed social activities and exercise, as well as vocational support and information about their condition and medication.

Improving access

The aim of the programme is to understand how improving access to treatments such as psychological therapies can improve people's well-being and prevent them from developing more serious mental health problems and potentially being admitted to hospital.

It is estimated that one in three people visit their GP with mental health problems each year. The report highlights that waiting times for treatment such as psychological therapies can be reduced from 16 weeks to three weeks if patients are treated by a stepped care system in partnership with GPs.

Dave Richards, a professor of mental health at the University of York, acknowledges the innovative work of PCTs and services. 'I am pleased to welcome this timely report,' he said. 'It adds considerably to the practice-based evidence on stepped care and documents the results of attempts by clinicians on the ground to facilitate major improvements in the way they help people with common mental health problems.'

The results could have considerable implications for the north west, which has some of the highest rates of suicide and self-harm in England and high rates of admittance to hospital for mental health problems.

Ruth Hussey, regional director of public health, added: 'By identifying patients at risk of depression at an early stage and by having the right range of services in place, we can achieve the best results for patients and use NHS resources more efficiently. There is no doubt that talking treatments are an essential part of the national healthcare picture, and we want programmes like this to be rolled out across the north west.'

Changing landscape

In the past, patients undergoing treatment for mental health problems have found it difficult to obtain and sustain paid employment. However, the emerging results of this project suggest that patients can continue working during.treatment, increasing their long-term prospects and quality of life, as well as allowing them to make a positive contribution to the local economy.

Patient ratings suggest high satisfaction levels with the treatment received, particularly in relation to helpfulness (75 per cent) and quality (76 per cent). Fifty per cent of clients felt they were offered a choice of treatment. The majority of clients would use the service again (81 per cent) and recommend it to a friend (82 per cent).

Lord Layard, the 'happiness czar', has projected that depression costs society as much as£25bn per year, while the World Health Organisation suggests that common mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, could be the second largest global burden of disease by 2020.

Mark Needham is programme co-ordinator atthe Care Services Improvement Partnership.