If you're filing for Social Security disability or SSI disability and your claim is based, at least in part, on a mental impairment of some kind, you may want to be careful about mentioning current or even past social use of alcohol or drugs.
Many adults drink either socially or infrequently, and such usage does not even begin to approach a reasonable definition of abuse. Similarly, some applicants use marijuana moderately or infrequently, whether for medicinal purposes or not. This article is addressed to these people.
How Alcohol and Drug Use Affect the Disability Decision
The problem with using alcohol or drugs when applying for disability is that the Social Security Administration (SSA) can deny you benefits if it believes that your alcohol or drug use contributes to your mental impairment. In the Social Security disability process (which includes SSI disability as well), this is a concept known as DAA materiality. The DAA part stands for drug and alcohol abuse. Materiality means whether the DAA is a contributing factor to your disabling medical condition. In other words, if you have a physical impairment or mental condition for which you are filing for disability and it can be shown that, minus the effects of your drug or alcohol use, the condition would not be disabling, your claim could be denied.
If drugs or alcohol are mentioned in your medical record, after making an initial disability decision, Social Security will make a "DAA determination" to see whether this is true in your case.
How Claims Examiners View Alcohol and Drug Use
Even fairly moderate alcohol or drug use can be said to contribute to such conditions as depression, anxiety, seizures, sleep apnea, insomnia, and personality disturbances. And since the materiality of drug or alcohol use is a subjective concept, the SSA could use your use of drugs or alcohol to deny you benefits.
Keep in mind the fact that the Social Security Administration denies more than two-thirds of all initial claims for disability and more than 80% of all first appeals (reconsideration appeals). In this culture of disability claim denial, it is not unusual for disability examiners to use even the barest medical record documentation to deny cases. This includes short notes in a family doctor's records such as "patient admits to occasional alcohol use" or "patient consumed three beers the previous day."
Even if the claims examiner does not view the mention of occasional alcohol use as damaging to a claimant's case, the examiner's supervisor or the examiner's unit psychological consultant (this individual is usually a Ph.D. level psychologist who works, alongside examiners, to process claims) may make the assumption that your alcohol or cannabis use plays too heavily into your mental disorder (such as bipolar disorder, depression, and so on).
How to Handle the Alcohol or Drug Use Question
An individual who wishes to qualify for disability may want to be careful when mentioning the use of a substance, simply to avoid giving the Social Security Administration an easy way to deny a claim. That said, you should be honest in filling out your application and answering doctors' questions. If the SSA finds out you're not telling the truth (for instance, you have advanced liver disease from alcohol abuse but you deny having ever drank alcohol), this can harm your chances of getting disability benefits.
For more information, see how Social Security makes a DAA determination.
By: Tim Moore, former Social Security disability claims examiner