Who Would Pay Higher Taxes for Better Mental Health? Results of a Large-Sample National Choice Experiment

Original Scholarship Mental health

Policy Points:

  • Public funding for mental health programs must compete with other funding priorities in limited state budgets.
  • Valuing state-funded mental health programs in a policy-relevant context requires consideration of how much benefit from other programs the public is willing to forgo to increase mental health program benefits and how much the public is willing to be taxed for such program benefits.
  • Taxpayer resistance to increased taxes to pay for publicly funded mental health programs and perceived benefits of such programs vary with state population size.
  • In all states, taxpayers seem to support increased public funding for mental health programs such as state Medicaid services, suggesting such programs are underfunded from the perspective of the average taxpayer.

Context: The direct and indirect impacts of serious mental illness (SMI) on health care systems and communities represents a significant burden. However, the value that community members place on alleviating this burden is not known, and SMI treatment must compete with a long list of other publicly funded priorities. This study defines the value of public mental health interventions as what the public would accept, either in the form of higher taxes or in reductions in nonhealth programs, in return for increases in the number of mental health program beneficiaries.

Methods: We developed and fielded a best-practice discrete-choice experiment survey to quantify respondents’ willingness to be taxed for increased spending among several competing programs, including a program for treating severe mental health conditions. A realistic decision frame was used to elicit respondents’ willingness to support expanded state budgets for mental health programs if that expansion required either cuts in the competing publicly financed programs or tax increases. The survey was administered to a general population national sample of 10,000 respondents.

Findings: Nearly half the respondents in our sample either chose “no budget increase” for all budget scenarios or had preferences that were too disordered to estimate trade-off values. Including zero values for those respondents, we found that the mean (median) amount that all respondents were willing to be taxed annually for public mental health programs ranged between $156 ($99) per year for large-population states and $343 ($181) per year for small-population states. Respondents would accept reductions of between 1.6 and 3.4 beneficiaries in other programs in return for 1 additional mental health program beneficiary.

Conclusions: Our results are consistent with findings that a substantial portion of the US public is unwilling to pay higher taxes. Nevertheless, even including the substantial number of respondents who opposed any tax increase, the willingness of both the mean and median respondent to be taxed for mental health program expansions implies that programs providing mental health services such as state Medicaid are underfunded.

Keywords: mental health, social values, willingness to pay, discrete-choice experiment.


Johnson FR, Gonzalez JM, Yang JC, Ozdemir S, Kymes S. Who Would Pay Higher Taxes for Better Mental Health? Results of a Large-Sample National Choice Experiment. Milbank Q. 2021;99(3):771-793. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-0009.12523