A Department of Health programme that is making evidence-based psychological therapies more widely available than ever before means thousands of people and their families are having their lives transformed. Evidence shows the programme can reduce GP consultations and acute care activity, alleviating pressure when the NHS is working hard to achieve the 18-week target.

Results of a year's work in two very different places - Doncaster in Yorkshire and Newham in east London - have been so impressive that 20 more areas across England will get new services next year and thousands more therapists will be trained over the next few years.

Mental health charities and Professor Lord Layard, who led the London School of Economics' Depression Report, warmly welcomed health secretary Alan Johnson's announcement of extra annual funding, rising to£170m by 2011, to 'build a ground-breaking psychological therapies service in England'.

This followed an announcement that 11 sites around the country would act as pathfinders - building on the Newham and Doncaster work with working-age adults by each focusing on one or more particularly vulnerable groups, such as children, new mothers, older people, people with long-term conditions or medically unexplained symptoms, black and ethnic minority groups, and offenders.

The pathfinders' work was formally launched this autumn at a London conference. Health minister Ivan Lewis gave the keynote address after the full-year results from the first two projects became known. A week later, the new funding was the first announcement in this year's comprehensive spending review.

Remarkable results

The Newham and Doncaster projects succeeded in replicating clinical trials and achieving measurable recovery in more than half the people they treated. For the first time, they routinely collected information on waiting times, treatments and improvements in people's health.

They helped people stay in jobs and get off statutory sick pay. Others became involved in volunteering, education or training, regaining a sense of purpose after weeks, months or years of feeling hopeless.

Waiting times came down dramatically, with more than 4,000 people seen in Doncaster. In Newham, the most diverse borough in the country, previously unmet need was uncovered and met.

Those who referred themselves for treatment were not the 'worried well' but at least as ill as those sent by GPs. Many had been ill for twice as long but recovery levels were as good.

Evidence shows that therapy that addresses the negative thought patterns that create deep personal misery can be as effective as drugs in the short term and more lasting in the long term.

Over the next three years, similar new services will be rolled out regionally in up to half the primary care trusts in England.

The improving access to psychological therapies programme is sponsored by the Department of Health and the Care Services Improvement Partnership. For more information, write to iapt@dh.gsi.gov.uk