Background: The present paper describes a component of a large population cost-effectiveness study that aimed to identify the averted burden and economic efficiency of current and optimal treatment for the major mental disorders. This paper reports on the findings for the anxiety disorders (panic disorder/agoraphobia, social phobia, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive–compulsive disorder). Method: Outcome was calculated as averted ‘years lived with disability’ (YLD), a population summary measure of disability burden. Costs were the direct health care costs in 1997–8 Australian dollars. The cost per YLD averted (efficiency) was calculated for those already in contact with the health system for a mental health problem (current care) and for a hypothetical optimal care package of evidence-based treatment for this same group. Data sources included the Australian National Survey of Mental Health and Well-being and published treatment effects and unit costs. Results: Current coverage was around 40% for most disorders with the exception of social phobia at 21%. Receipt of interventions consistent with evidence-based care ranged from 32% of those in contact with services for social phobia to 64% for post-traumatic stress disorder. The cost of this care was estimated at $400 million, resulting in a cost per YLD averted ranging from $7761 for generalized anxiety disorder to $34 389 for panic/agoraphobia. Under optimal care, costs remained similar but health gains were increased substantially, reducing the cost per YLD to <$20 000 for all disorders. Conclusions: Evidence-based care for anxiety disorders would produce greater population health gain at a similar cost to that of current care, resulting in a substantial increase in the cost-effectiveness of treatment.