According to a study published in the April issue of Psychiatric Services, people are less prepared to pay for prevent mental illnesses than for treatments of medical conditions. The study also revealed that regardless of the fact that mental illness was perceived as much more burdensome than some general medical illnesses, individuals were 40% less willing to pay for the prevention of mental illness as compared with medical illnesses.

Research leader Dylan M. Smith, Ph.D., of Stony Brook University School of Medicine and his team recruited a nationally representative sample of 710 adults from an Internet panel who were introduced to five health conditions, consisting of three medical illnesses or conditions like diabetes, partial blindness and below-the-knee amputation, as well as two mental illnesses, such as depression and schizophrenia. The panel was managed by Knowledge Networks, a U.S. survey research firm that maintains a panel of over 60,000 households that are a representative sample of adults age 21 and over. The participants were asked to categorize each health condition in terms of severity and level of burden on the quality of life, before they had to disclose how much they would pay themselves in order to prevent the condition.

Dr. Smith, Lead Author of “What’s it Worth? Public Willingness to Pay to Avoid Mental Illnesses Compared with General Medical Illnesses,” and Associate Professor of Preventive Medicine in Stony Brook’s Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics stated:

Our results showed that participants understood that mental illness clearly has a very negative impact on quality of life yet were significantly not as willing to pay for effective treatments for these illnesses. The findings mirror the general pattern of health care spending, with less resources going to treat mental illnesses than might be expected given the overall level of burden they impose on society.”

He refers to current World Health Organization statistics, which indicate that mental illnesses is responsible for 15.4% of the total burden caused by all disease in industrialized countries, whereas mental illnesses only accounts for 6.2% of health care expenditures in the U.S.

Peter Ubel, M.D., of Duke University and senior author of the study, declares:

“All else equal, the general public doesn’t think it is as valuable to treat mental illness as other types of illness. There is a fundamental disconnect between how bad they think it would be to experience depression and their willingness to spend money to rid themselves of the illness.”

The study participants reported to generally consider medical illnesses or conditions less severe than mental illnesses, however, in response to the question how ‘burdensome’ they would rate each condition, they rated schizophrenia as the highest average burden score, yet without the highest willingness-to-pay value. A similar response was observed for depression, which scored a relatively high “burdensomeness” rating, yet which received the lowest median willingness-to-pay value.

The researchers said:

“(The efforts to) eliminate the gap between mental health conditions and general health conditions will likely require targeting specific beliefs that people have about mental illnesses and the value of treatments for mental illness (and highlight that) public attitudes influence how much payers for health care are willing to spend to treat mental illness and how likely federal agencies are to invest in research on mental illness.”

They conclude by suggesting that further research should be prioritized to:

“Explore the deeper underlying attitudes that reduce people’s willingness to spend money to
avoid mental illness.”

Written by Petra Rattue