You can collect disability for both physical and mental medical conditions, but it is usually harder to collect disability for a mental illness than for a physical illness. Why? Part of the answer to this lies in the nature of mental illness itself. Symptoms are not likely to be easily assessed, and the severity of the condition may be hard to measure objectively.
How the SSA Views Mental Claims
Disability claims examiners who work for Social Security are not licensed psychiatrists, and do not always understand the full scope of the limitations imposed by certain mental illnesses. For instance, some disability examiners do not recognize the cyclical nature of mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, or manic depression, and therefore assume a patient is cured because he or she does not currently display certain symptoms, when in reality those symptoms have just dissipated for the moment, and are almost certain to return in the near future. To learn more, see Why Do Mental Impairment Claims Get Denied?
In addition, some disability examiners are biased against disability claims for mental illness. For more, see Is Social Security's Assessment of Mental Disorders Fair?
Mental Impairment Listings
In attempting to evaluate a condition, a disability examiner will first refer to Social Security's official listing of impairments, often referred to as the blue book. The disability listings in the blue book contain medical conditions that Social Security recognizes as inherently disabling; in other words, Social Security accepts that anyone suffering from a listed condition would be unable to work (earning an amount equivalent to substantial gainful activity). The disability examiner will determine if a disability applicant's symptoms meet the criteria of any specific mental condition listed in the blue book. Mental listings in the blue book of impairments include:
- mental retardation
- autistic disorders
- bipolar disorder, and
- substance abuse disorders.
For a full list of articles on cognitive, emotional, and mental disorders, see our section on getting disability for mental illness.
If your condition is not listed in the blue book, or if your condition isn't as severe as the blue book listing requires, but you have been diagnosed with a mental condition that is preventing you from working, and you can demonstrate that your disability is likely to last for a period of at least twelve months, you may be eligible for disability. If your mental RFC (residual functional capacity) shows you have intellectual, social, or functional limitations, you may be eligible for a medical-vocational allowance, depending on your mental limitations, age, education level, and job skills. For more information, see our article on the mental RFC.