Social Security Disability and SSI for Depression

Learn about your chances of getting Social Security disability benefits based on depression.

Depression is the second most common medical condition listed on Social Security disability applications. Depression in its various forms (major depression, dysthymia, and persistent depressive disorder) is a type of mood disorder characterized by gloom, sadness, and feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy. Concurrent with these emotions, a person with depression often suffers from feelings of fatigue and decreased energy levels.   In bipolar disorder, there is an expansive and elated mood (mania) that may cycle with depression; we discuss the disability requirements for bipolar disorder in another article.

How Depression Can Be Disabling

Many people suffer from depression associated with emotionally painful situations (the death of a loved one, divorce), but for the most part these periods of depression will be situational and short lived. However, if a person has an episode of depression with severe daily symptoms that last for two weeks or longer, their condition may be considered to be major clinical depression. Major clinical depression interferes with a person’s ability to cope with daily stresses and obligations, often rendering an individual unable to function effectively in their everyday life, including work and family activities.

What causes depression? There seem to be biological and genetic factors, as well as environmental factors.   Individuals can be predisposed to depression and the condition is sometimes seen among several members within a family. Stress and other environmental factors are also linked to depression.

Disability Benefits for Depression

To qualify for disability benefits, an individual with depression must either meet certain specific disability criteria (found in Social Security's impairment listing manual), or be granted a medical-vocational allowance based on the severity of their depression and a combination of other factors (such as other impairments, work history, age, and level of education).

This article discusses the rules about when adults can qualify for disability with depression. To read about how children with depression can qualify for Social Security disability, read our article on  getting disability for childhood depression.

Disability Listing for Depression

Social Security publishes a list of common, serious illnesses that qualify for disability if they meet the specified criteria. The purpose of the list is to be able to grant disability quickly for severe impairments. Depression is covered in Social Security's impairment listing 12.04, Depressive, Bipolar and Related. The listing has a list of symptoms and a list of functional problems you must have. First, to qualify for either Social Security disability or SSI disability benefits on the basis of depression, you must show you have severe depression by having at least five of the following symptoms:

  • depressed mood  
  • decreased interest in almost all activities
  • appetite disturbance (poor appetite or overeating) resulting in a change in weight
  • sleep disturbance (insomnia or oversleeping)
  • difficulty concentrating or thinking
  • feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • thoughts of death or suicide, and/or
  • a slowing of physical movement and reactions, including speech, or increased physical agitation, such as hand wringing or pacing.

In addition to having at least five of the above symptoms, you must also meet "functional" criteria to show that you have a loss of abilities due to the mental disorder. Generally, you must have an extreme limitation in at least one of the following areas, or a "marked” limitation in at least two of the following areas:

  • understanding, remembering, or applying information (the ability to understand instructions, learn new things, apply new knowledge to tasks, and use judgment in decisions)
  • interacting with others (the ability to use socially appropriate behaviors)
  • concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace in performing tasks (the ability to complete tasks), and/or
  • adapting or managing oneself (having practical personal skills like paying bills, cooking, shopping, dressing, and practicing good hygiene).

Note that "marked" is worse than moderate—you can think of it as seriously limiting. Extreme is less severe than a complete loss of an ability, but worse than marked. Marked and extreme are matters of professional judgment used by a SSA psychiatrist or psychologist when reviewing the medical evidence.

Alternately, if you can't show that you currently have the functional limitations above because you have been living in a highly structured or protected situation or undergoing intense therapy, you may be able to meet a second set of functional criteria. You can do this if your disorder has been medically documented as serious and persistent over a period of at least two years and you can show that you have been living in a highly-structured setting or receiving ongoing medical treatment, mental health therapy, or psychosocial support that diminishes the symptoms of your mental disorder. You must also show that you have minimal capacity to adapt to demands that are not already part of your daily life or to changes in your environment.

This second set of functional criteria recognizes that there are some people who may not be showing symptoms such as not interacting well with others or being able to take care of themselves because they live in highly protected and supervised situations that makes their functional abilities appear better than would be the case in real-life situations where the stress and demands on them would be greater. In other words, their condition is “marginal” in that it is expected that they would not be able to perform the work if put in a work-like environment. In some cases, a person can fulfill this set of criteria by attempting to return to work and failing.  

Qualifying Outside of the Depression Listing

Meeting the requirements of the depression listing, above, isn't the only way to receive an approval for disability. If Social Security finds that your depression isn't severe enough to meet the listing above, it will determine if you can be approved by being granted a "medical-vocational allowance." Social Security will consider how your depression symptoms affect your ability to do any type of unskilled work, by looking at your ability to:

  • carry out simple instructions
  • make simple work-related decisions
  • respond appropriately to supervision and to co workers, and
  • handle changes in routine.

If depression is the only impairment you listed on the disability application, getting disability will be a long shot unless you have severe, disabling depression and can qualify under the listing for depression. But if you also have a physical impairment or another mental impairment along with depression, you have a better chance of getting benefits. For more information, see our article on how moderate depression affects the disability decision.

If Social Security decides that the limitations caused by your depression or combined mental impairments that make it impossible for you to do even simple, unskilled work, you will get disability benefits. Or, if Social Security decides you have the mental capacity to perform unskilled work, but you have a physical impairment that requires you do sit-down work, you could also get disability benefits if you're not qualified to do any sit-down jobs. To understand how Social Security makes these decisions, learn more about getting Social Security Disability benefits based on a medical-vocational allowance for a mental disorder.

Appealing a Denial of Benefits for Depression

If you've been denied benefits and feel your case is strong enough to win an appeal, consider contacting a disability lawyer. Applicants who go to an appeal hearing represented by a lawyer have a better approval rate than applicants who represent themselves. To find a local lawyer in your area, you may find our disability attorney locator helpful.

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