Can You Get Disability Benefits for Chronic Alcoholism?
You can't get disability benefits for alcoholism alone, but you may be able to get disability benefits for alcohol-related medical conditions.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) cannot find you disabled based solely on your diagnosis of chronic alcoholism. However, many people who suffer from chronic alcoholism have physical or behavioral changes that limit their ability to function in a work situation and that are caused by their chronic use of alcohol. The SSA will not treat your claim any worse because your impairment is a result of chronic alcoholism.
However, if you are still drinking, and the SSA believes that if you stopped drinking your medical conditions would improve to the point where you would not be disabled, you won't get disability benefits. For more information, see our article Can You Get Disability If You've Alcohol or Drugs?
Qualifying for Disability for a Substance Addiction Disorder
If your condition meets the requirements of SSA's disability listing for one of the medical conditions listed below, and if your impairment would still meet the listing requirements even if you quit drinking alcohol, you will be found disabled.
Neurocognitive disorders (previously called organic mental disorders) are marked by a decline in mental functioning; often they are caused by damage to the brain, either through injury or degenerative disease. An example of a neurocognitive disorder that is frequently caused by chronic alcohol use is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.
The listing for neurocognitive disorders, which was updated in 2017, requires you to have a cognitive deficit such as memory loss, distractibility, decreased judgment, difficulties with language, a decrease in coordination, or poor social judgment. In addition, you must be able to show how your deficit limits your functional abilities. For information on satisfying Social Security's disability listing, see our article on getting disability for a neurocognitive disorder.
Depression, which is often either caused by or exacerbated by alcoholism, is evaluated under the disability listing for mood disorders. For more information, see our article on disability and depression.
Contrary to the belief that alcohol is a relaxant, alcoholism can cause long-term anxiety. For more information, see our article on disability and anxiety-related disorders.
Peripheral neuropathy occurs when there is damage to the peripheral nervous system. Your peripheral nervous system is involved in transmitting information from your brain throughout your body and from the rest of your body back to your brain. Alcoholism can cause peripheral neuropathy, often because many alcoholics also have a thiamine deficiency, which can cause painful neuropathy of the extremities. For more information, see our article on disability and neuropathy.
Most liver disease in the United States is caused by chronic alcohol consumption, and liver damage due to alcohol abuse is a common reason listed on applications for disability. For more information, see our article on disability and chronic liver disease, which explains the disability listing criteria for liver damage.
Alcohol abuse is the most common cause of gastritis, which occurs when the stomach lining becomes inflamed. Gastritis will be evaluated by the SSA under its disability listings for the digestive system.
Alcohol has a toxic effect on the pancreas, and prolonged, heavy alcohol abuse will cause pancreatitis, inflammation of the pancreas. For more information, see our article on disability benefits for pancreatitis.
Heavy drinking can cause seizures (sometimes called "rum fits"), even if the drinker is not an epileptic. But the SSA will evaluate this condition on its epilepsy listing. For more information, see our article on disability and seizures.
Residual Functional Capacity
If you have a mental or physical impairment caused by alcohol addiction, but you don't meet any of the criteria for the above impairments, the SSA will look at your “residual functional capacity,” or “RFC.” Your RFC is used by the SSA to determine what you are still capable of doing in an employment situation, taking into account the limitations from your medical condition.
Since disability is no longer given for chronic alcoholism, but rather for associated impairments (neurocognitive disorder, liver damage, and so on), the SSA looks at how those other impairments limit your ability to work. For example, if you have seizures, your RFC may be limited in areas like ability to drive and operate heavy machinery and working in high places. If you have liver disease, you may get tired easily, have shortness of breath, and have severe abdominal pain. These are things that might limit what kind of work you can perform. For more information about what an RFC assessment might look like for your condition, see our article on the specific condition (links to above).
If the SSA finds that, with your RFC, there is no job you can perform, you will be awarded disability benefits under what is called a “medical-vocational allowance.” For more information, see our articles on physical RFCs and mental RFCs.
Again, it is important to note that if stopping drinking would make your impairment improve to the point where you would no longer be considered disabled, you will not be granted benefits. The SSA may require you to stop drinking for 30 days to see if your symptoms would improve. See our article on DAA evaluations for more information.