Depression is the leading cause of disability among nonfatal medical conditions in the United States. Depression in its various forms (major depression, dysthymia, and manic depression) 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.
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 often seen among several members within a family. Stress and other environmental factors are also linked to depression.
Many of us suffer from depression that is the result of our reaction to negative situations (the death of a loved one, divorce, or significant changes in our lives), 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 our ability to cope with our lives, often rendering an individual unable to function effectively in their everyday life, including work and family activities.
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 grant disability quickly for severe impairments. Depression is covered in impairment listing 12.04, Affective Disorders. 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 four of the following symptoms:
- lack of interest or pleasure in most activities
- decreased energy
- poor appetite or overeating
- insomnia or oversleeping
- difficulty concentrating or thinking
- lack of physical movement
- feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- paranoia, delusions, or hallucinations, or
- suicidal thoughts.
In addition, Social Security requires that your symptoms of depression cause you serious difficulty in:
- activities of daily living (ADLs)
- social functioning
- focusing, or
- repeated, extended periods of worsening symptoms (episodes of decompensation).
For example, an individual with a diagnosis of depression who doesn't get along well with others, can't concentrate on simple tasks, and has trouble with hygiene may be able to qualify under the disability listing for depression.
Alternatively, if you've experienced recurrent episodes of depression for at least two years, you might be able to qualify for disability if your depression has improved with antidepressant medication or heavy social support, but your recovery is tentative and you could experience a setback if you go back to work or change your routine.
If you regularly see a psychiatrist or psychologist, he or she should be recording your symptoms. If not, you may want to track your condition using a self-rated depression scale.
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. Applicants can, instead, be approved by being granted a "medical-vocational allowance." This, in fact, is how most disability claims are approved.
To determine whether you should be granted disability benefits under a medical-vocational allowance, Social Security will consider how your depression symptoms affect your ability to do unskilled work, which requires you to:
- understand, remember, and 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. 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 mental impairment 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 sedentary work, you could also get disability benefits if you're not qualified to do any sedentary 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.