Imagine for a moment you are suffering from an illness that makes you feel like your soul has been run over by an angry defensive lineman, a disease that interferes with your desire to sleep, eat and make love. Oh, and this illness will continue to make you feel this way for the rest of your life. How much would you be willing to pay for a treatment makes you feel normal again?
My colleagues and I posed that question to a nationally representative sample of more than 700 Americans and we discovered something troubling—people’s willingness to pay for medical interventions depends in large part on whether the illness in question is “physical” or “mental.” People are much less willing to part with money to treat mental illnesses, even after accounting for the perceived severity of those same illnesses. Our article—“What’s It Worth?”—is available online at the Journal of Psychiatric Services.
Let me tell you a bit more about our study. We described a handful of illnesses to people and asked them to tell us, in effect, how bad each one would be to experience. For instance, we describe type 2 diabetes to people, and told them that it was uncomplicated by any other medical problems. People thought that would be pretty hard on their quality of life. We also described below-the-knee amputation, and they thought that would be even worse than diabetes. We described severe blindness, which only leaves one able to distinguish shadows. People thought that one was worse than either of the first two problems.
We also described a case of moderately severe depression to people, a level bad enough to cause the victims to “feel sad and downhearted a lot of the time.” The description went on to explain that it would make people “feel like a failure” and lose interest in food and sex. Trust me, it was a thorough and devastating picture of how depression can affect people’s lives. Indeed, people thought it was horrendous, at least as bad as any of the physical illnesses we described.