Social Security Benefits for Mental Illness: How A Lawyer Can Help

Here's why it makes sense to hire a disability lawyer if you're denied disability benefits.

An experienced disability attorney can greatly increase your chances for approval, especially for claims based on mental illness and other mental disabilities.

Listings for Mental Illness and Mental Disabilities

Social Security's Listing of Impairments outlines certain medical conditions that, if their requirements are fully met, will result in an automatic approval of benefits. These conditions are called listings. The Listing of Impairments includes numerous mental conditions such as:

  • anxiety disorders
  • organic brain disorders
  • personality disorders
  • affective disorders
  • substance abuse disorders
  • autism, and
  • mental retardation.

How an attorney can help. People are usually unaware that their condition may be eligible for a faster approval; however, disability attorneys are trained to identify claims that may meet a listing. If your attorney determines that your condition may meet a listing, he or she will review your file carefully to make sure you have all the medical evidence you need to satisfy its criteria. Your attorney will also help you get any missing evidence and may help you get further testing if you need it to meet the listing.

Common Disability Claims

There are numerous mental disabilities; however, depression and anxiety are the most prevalent on disability applications, so I'll discuss how an attorney can help win a claim for depression or anxiety. Although mental retardation is not as common, it is a good example of the complex requirements often needed to meet mental listings.

Depression and Anxiety

Depression and anxiety are often the main reason for, or a part of, a person’s disability claim; however, these conditions can be difficult to prove. This is because depression and anxiety are largely based on subjective evidence. Subjective evidence is based on how the individual experiences the illness. On the other hand, physical medical conditions can usually be diagnosed and documented with objective evidence such as lab tests or x-rays. This is why it can be harder to prove that a claimant’s mental illness is so severe that he or she is unable to work.

Mental RFCs. One of the ways that the Social Security Administration (SSA) will assess your mental illness is with a mental residual functional capacity assessment (RFC). A mental RFC is a detailed report that discusses how your mental illness affects your ability to do the mental activities need in a job. Here are some examples of the activities that are evaluated in a mental RFC:

  • how well you can follow simple directions
  • whether you can work in a normal job setting without extra supervision
  • whether you are disruptive to others in the workplace
  • if you can make simple work-related decisions
  • how well you interact with the public, and
  • how well you respond to criticism or direction from your supervisors.

The SSA will send you to a doctor it has hired who will interview you. This is called a consultative examination (CE). The doctor (called the consultative examiner, or CE) will then prepare your mental RFC using both the results of the interview and the medical evidence in your file.

Attacking the RFC. When the SSA completes your mental RFC it will send a copy to your attorney. Your attorney will review the RFC by carefully comparing it to the medical evidence in your file. This gives your attorney a good understanding of the SSA’s position on your claim. It also provides valuable insight into any weaknesses in your claim that need to be addressed.

How an Attorney Can Help. If there are weaknesses in your claim, your attorney will tell you specifically what is needed to strengthen your claim. And if the SSA’s mental RFC is unfavorable (which they frequently are), your attorney will work to identify areas where the CE’s opinion can be discredited. This is vital because administrative law judges (who conduct disability hearings) rely heavily on a CE’s opinion. Here is an example.

Working with doctors. A supporting RFC from a claimant’s treating doctor is a vital part of winning a claim. However, doctors are sometimes unwilling to provide RFCs for claimants.

How an Attorney Can Help. A disability attorney is skilled at interacting with doctors and can often overcome objections or concerns a doctor may have about preparing an RFC. Also, most disability attorneys have staff members who contact the doctor’s office on a regular basis to make sure they provide the medical records needed to win a claim.

Mental Retardation

The SSA refers to an intellectual disability as mental retardation. Mental retardation is one of the medical conditions outlined in the SSA’s listings. This means that the SSA will automatically award benefits to a claimant who meets all of the listing’s requirements.

To qualify for disability based on the listing for mental retardation, the claimant must have a low I.Q., within the range outlined in the listing. However, the SSA will not accept the results of every I.Q. test that a claimant has taken. This is true even if a claimant has had numerous tests that resulted in similar I.Q. scores. The listing outlines highly complicated that an I.Q. test must meet in order to have its results considered. Without specific training, these guidelines are difficult to understand.

How an Attorney Can Help. A disability attorney is familiar with these guidelines and will review any tests in the claimant’s file to see ensure they will be accepted by the SSA. Most disability attorneys will also help a claimant get more testing if it is needed to win the claim. For example, a disability attorney may request that the SSA to administer an I.Q. that meets its own guidelines.

If a claimant cannot be approved based on I.Q. alone, there are other requirements that can be met to qualify under the listing, such as limitations caused by the claimant's I.Q. affecting his or her activities of daily living. A disability attorney will review the file to make sure these requirements can be met. If further evidence is needed, the attorney will help the claimant get the additional information.

Other Mental Conditions

As discussed above, there are a number of other mental conditions that may eligible for automatic approval. You can learn more about them by reading our articles on:

As explained above, an experienced disability attorney understands the complex requirements of these listings and will make sure you have all the evidence you need to meet them.

Contacting an Attorney

Even if your mental condition doesn’t meet a listing, a disability attorney is skilled at using other strategies to help you win. For example, if a person suffers from a physical disability in addition to anxiety and depression, the SSA must consider the combined effect of these impairments on a person’s ability to work. An experienced disability attorney is skilled at how to use a person’s multiple conditions to help win a claim for disability.

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