3.5 million are on anti-depressants. Now ministers want to put Britain on the couch

The prescription of so-called "happy pills" has risen by more than 120 percent in the past decade amid soaring levels of depression and anxiety, an Independent on Sunday investigation reveals today.

Faced with growing concern from doctors who say they are forced to prescribe drugs as a "second best" treatment, the Government is to promote alternative methods of dealing with the nation's dependency on drugs.

Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Health, is to unveil a major expansion next month of "talking therapies" as an alternative to drugs such as Prozac, which cost the National Health Service more than £400m a year.

Ms Hewitt believes millions of people with mild or moderate depression could eventually be helped to lead happier, fuller lives without relying exclusively on medication.

In a major speech on mental health, Ms Hewitt is expected to unveil two pilot areas - believed to be Doncaster in South Yorkshire and Newham in London - where these claims will be properly tested.

The areas have been chosen partly because of the high proportion of people claiming incapacity benefit, a third of whom are thought to be suffering from depression.

Patients will be offered a range of talking therapies, from marriage counselling to jobs advice.

Health officials admit that access to NHS therapists varies widely, with waiting lists in some areas stretching up to two years.

A recent survey of GPs found that nine out of 10 had prescribed anti-depressants as a "second-best" treatment because of the long waits. Voluntary organisations such as Mind, the mental health charity, will provide counsellors to expand the capacity available to GPs in the pilot areas.

But the programme falls far short of official recommendations for 10,000 new therapists.

Anti-depressants are often a vital element in the treatment of depression, but most experts believe the drugs are heavily over-prescribed. The official guidance from the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice) is that recognised talking therapies are at least as effective in the short term and more effective over a long period.

Some patients suffering from moderate depression and anxiety will receive intensive cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) programmes based on pioneering treatments developed to help victims of the August 1998 Omagh and 7 July London bombings.

Ms Hewitt told the IoS she wants to see "much better support for people with anxiety, depression and moderate mental illness".

"I really feel that not enough attention is paid to it because of the stigma attached and that the range of therapies is far too limited. The typical response, people feel, is for GPs to prescribe Prozac or something of the kind and really not do much else. What people are saying is that they want someone to listen, someone to talk to."

The expansion of therapy is based on official recommendations made by the Government's so-called "happiness tsar", Professor Lord Richard Layard. The economist has helped to persuade Whitehall to take therapy seriously, arguing that it has profound economic benefits. "Therapy is a form of empowerment in the way that drugs are not. It should be a choice for all who need it," he said.

It was Lord Layard who called for 10,000 new therapists last year. He said that the costs to the economy of depression were huge, with around £10bn a year spent on incapacity benefit.

Professor David Clark, a trauma expert who has worked with Lord Layard, said that two-year waiting times for therapy were "quite inappropriate". "Mental illness is Britain's great social inequality, and the cost to society of not treating it is enormous," he said.