Objective: The effectiveness of two versions of stepped care [with either brief therapy (BT) or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) as a first step] is studied in comparison with the traditional matched care approach (CAU) for patients with mood and anxiety disorders. Method: A randomized trial was performed in routine mental health care in 12 settings, including 702 patients. Patients were interviewed once in 3 months for 18-24 months (response rate 69%). Results: Overall, patients' health improved significantly over time: 51% had achieved recovery from the DSM-IV disorder(s) after 1 year and 66% at the end of the study. Respectively, 50% and 60% had 'normal' SCL90 and SF36 scores. Cognitive behavioural therapy and BT patients achieved recovery more often than CAU patients (ORs between 1.26 and 1.48), although these results were not statistically significant. Conclusion: Stepped care, with BT or CBT as a first step, is at least as effective as matched care. © 2006 Blackwell Munksgaard.