Can I Get SSI Disability for My Child's Depression?

Low-income children with major depressive disorder that is hampering their social or academic development may be able to get SSI.

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Depression is an illness that causes a child to feel persistently hopeless or sad. While every child will feel down for short periods of time, when the condition takes over your child’s mood for longer periods of time and interferes with her ability to function, then it is considered to be the clinical condition called major depressive syndrome. Major depression in children can cause symptoms like poor self-esteem, changes in eating or sleeping habits, loss of interest in activities that the child once enjoyed, withdrawal from friends or family, irritability, and physical complaints like headaches or stomachaches.

This article discusses the rules about how children can qualify for SSI with depression. The rules for adults are different; to read about how adults with depression can qualify for Social Security disability, read our article on getting disability for depression.

Qualifying for SSI With Depression

If your child has mild or moderate depression, he or she will not qualify for SSI. Social Security will only consider children with severe depression for disability. (And only children from low-income families can get disability benefits from Social Security.) The agency evaluates children who apply for disability benefits for depression by using its listing for major depressive syndrome, which is part of its listing for mood disorders. The listing if fairly complicated and has several parts.

To meet the requirements of the listing for mood disorders, a depressed child must have a diagnosis of major depressive syndrome and the disorder must be prolonged and color her entire outlook. In addition, the child needs medical documentation of the persistence of either a depressed or irritable mood or markedly diminished interest or pleasure in almost all activities. In addition, the child must have at least four of the following:

  • appetite or weight increase or decrease, or failure to make expected weight gains
  • sleep disturbances
  • psychomotor retardation (physical sluggishness) or physical agitation (like pacing, hand-wringing, or severe nail-biting)
  • fatigue or loss of energy
  • feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • difficulty thinking or concentrating
  • suicidal thoughts or acts, and/or
  • hallucinations, delusions, or paranoid thinking.

If the child has both a depressed or irritable mood AND markedly diminished interest or pleasure in almost all activities, then the child only needs three symptoms from the above list to satisfy the listing.

In addition, to meet the listing, a child must satisfy additional criteria based on the child’s age.

Criteria for Children from Ages One to Three

For children ages one through three, there must be evidence that the depression is causing a significant developmental delay, either in fine or gross motor skills, cognitive or communicative function, or social function. By cognitive and communicative function, Social Security means your child's intellectual and language development. By social function, Social Security means the development of the child's relatedness to people and objects, including factors like bonding and stranger anxiety. For all three of these areas, Social Security will be looking for the results of particular screening tools and tests that the child's psychiatrist will use in assessing and treating the child.

A delay in one of these areas will satisfy the listing if it results in your child showing a developmental level that is no more than half the child’s chronological age. So, for example, if your 22 month-old son has the social function of an 11-month-old, he satisfies this part of the listing.

If your child has delays in two or three of the areas (motor skills, cognitive/communicative function, and social function), then the child need only show that he is functioning at no more than two-thirds of his chronological age. So, for example, if your 21-month-old son has the social function AND cognitive/communicative function of a 14-month-old, and the delays are caused by his major depressive syndrome, then he satisfies this criteria.

Criteria for Children from Ages Three to Eighteen

Children between ages three and eighteen must show marked (quite severe) impairments in at least two of the following:

  • age-appropriate cognitive/ communicative functioning (intelligence and language development
  • age-appropriate social functioning (capacity to form and maintain relationships)
  • age-appropriate personal functioning (capacity to take care of one’s own health and safety), and
  • ability to maintain concentration, persistence, and pace.

Social Security considers an impairment to be "marked" if it very seriously interferes with the child’s ability to function. Where it is possible, Social Security will be looking for objective medical evidence of your child’s impairments, so medical records and standardized testing will be important to show that your child’s impairments are severe enough to satisfy the listing.

Getting Help

It's not easy to get your child approved for disability benefits for depression. If your application is denied by Social Security, it may help your case to talk to a lawyer who specializes in winning Social Security disability claims. A disability attorney can tell you if you have a good chance of winning (and probably won't take your case if you don't) and can help gather the evidence that Social Security will be looking for in a disability claim for childhood depression.

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