Mental Illness and Social Security Disability

It can be difficult to get disability for mental disorders, which include cognitive, emotional, psychological, and psychiatric problems.

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 of mental illness are not easily evaluated, and the severity of a 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. But in reality, those symptoms may have just dissipated for the moment and could return in the near future. 

In addition, some disability examiners may be biased against disability claims for mental illness. There are those who believe that some disability applicants who claim mental illness are just lazy or malingering (faking their illness for benefits). This is unsettling since, statistically, so many individuals suffer from mental illness worldwide, but it is partially due to the fact that the criteria for evaluating most mental disorders is subjective. There are very few tests to evaluate the severity of an individual's mental condition. Only mental conditions such as intellectual disability or mental retardationmemory impairments, or other organic mental disorders can be tested objectively (using IQ and memory impairment testing).

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:

(For a full list of our articles on cognitive, emotional, and mental disorders, see our section on getting disability for mental illness.)

Disability examiners base their decisions on whether an applicant meets the requirements of a mental listing by reading the clinical notes of mental health professionals, third-party questionnaires (friends are contacted and asked about the claimant's condition and normal daily routine), and an ADL (activities of daily living) questionnaire.

Mental RFCs

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.

How to Improve Your Chances of Getting Approved for a Mental or Emotional Illness

For mental illnesses that may improve with treatment, such as anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia, the most important things that you can do to improve your chances of getting approved are to see a doctor regularly (a psychiatrist or psychologist), to let your doctor know how your condition affects you on a daily basis, and to take the medicine that the doctor prescribes to you. To learn more, see Why Do Mental Impairment Claims Get Denied?

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