Pioneering NHS scheme for couples and families depends on more funding, say experts and patients

The Government will today announce plans to introduce couples therapy on the NHS for the first time.

The move will see psychologists and counsellors appointed to work with couples whose relationship is in danger of being destroyed by depression or other mental problems.

From April, patients will be assessed and then offered a choice of individual or couples counselling under the government's programme to improve access to psychological therapies (IAPT). But while today's announcement by Health Secretary Andy Burnham will be broadly welcomed by experts who have long campaigned for couple and family therapy to be more widely available on the NHS, there is no extra money for the new therapists, training or the increased demand.

The Government is in the middle of a £173m investment programme to improve access to therapies for people suffering from common mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and panic disorders.

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence recommends that patients with mild to moderate conditions be offered step-based therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy as initial treatment, before medication is even considered.

The IAPT programme began after it was found only a quarter of Britain's six million depression sufferers were in treatment while prescriptions for anti-depressant drugs had spiralled. It is seen as part of a wider drive to help people back to work, improve the nation's well-being and reduce the pressure on the benefits system

The costs of mental illness in England were nearly £80bn in 2003. Depression and other stress-induced mental health problems are some of the most common reasons for people to be off work, according to the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health.

Mel Merritt, from Relate, the UK's largest provider of relationship counselling, said: "We have been lobbying for the remit of IAPT to be extended and welcome any initiative which gives more couples access to counselling, but we wait to hear the details. We know that people who come to Relate have found that relationship counselling not only had a positive impact on them but also benefited their family life, parenting skills and their ability to cope with work."

Couples with problems that were not triggered by or developed into clinical depression or anxiety would not be eligible for NHS counselling.

Of the changes Mr Burnham said: "Trouble at home can lead to depression and anxiety and children can be caught up in the fallout. Professional support can help people rebuild relationships or separate amicably – that's why I want couples therapy to be more widely available on the NHS."

Nicola, 36, a project manager from York divorced in 1998 after four years of marriage. She has suffered episodes of severe depression and panic attacks since her teens but found it difficult to access psychological services. She said: "I think couples therapy would have been helpful during my marriage, though I don't know if it would have necessarily saved it. Anything that could help the partner to understand what they're dealing with and provide some support for would be useful. But there is no right way to approach somebody: everyone is unique.

"I am a bit cynical about how there will be enough therapists to deal with couples, when as an individual I could not even get on the waiting list."

Additional reporting by Paul Bignell