Social Security Disability for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

For PTSD disability, Social Security will want to see evidence of near-extreme anxiety or emotional disturbance caused by regular flashbacks, nightmares, or memories.

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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) happens after seeing or going through a traumatic event involving injury or death, such as an accident, rape, abuse, killing, natural disaster (like a fire, earthquake, or hurricane), or even experiencing a heart attack. PTSD causes recurrent flashback episodes and nightmares that can disrupt day-to-day activity. Some forms of PTSD include hyper-vigilance, extreme fear of the event recurring, anger or irritability, and a tendency to be easily startled.

PTSD is unlike simple shock, depression or stress, in the fact that the body and brain chemistry actually change with post traumatic stress disorder. Those with the disorder usually show a high level of catecholamine and a low level of cortisol in their urine and a decrease in the volume of their hippocampus, a part of the frontal lobe of the brain that is also damaged during Alzheimer's disease.

Treatment for post traumatic stress disorder can involve counseling, cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychotherapy, antidepressant drugs, antipsychotic medications, or a combination of one or more of these treatments. Also, sometimes eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) helps to reduce the effect of traumatic events.

Getting Disability for PTSD

Disability claims for PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, can be approved by disability claims examiners in two separate ways. The first route for approval is for individuals whose medical records satisfy the requirements of Social Security's disability listing on anxiety-related disorders. The second means of approval is to get a "medical-vocational allowance." This may sound like it's an exception, but it's actually the manner in which the great majority of SSD and SSI disability claims are approved.

Satisfying the SSA Listing With PTSD

To meet the requirement of the anxiety listing, you must have disruptive flashbacks, nightmares, or memories that regularly cause you “marked distress,” which means you suffer from near-extreme anxiety or emotional disturbance, not just disturbing memories that make you uncomfortable. The marked distress must interfere with your daily activities, social life, or ability to concentrate. Other ways to qualify under the anxiety listing are having the required symptoms of panic attacks, OCD, phobias, or generalized anxiety due to your PTSD.

Getting a Medical-Vocational Allowance With PTSD

To be considered for a medical-vocational allowance, the disability claims examiner must have determined that you will not be awarded benefits on the basis of meeting the requirements of the anxiety listing, but that the symptoms of your condition could be severe enough to prevent you from working. Individuals with PTSD often have fatigue from poor sleep patterns, trouble concentrating, and memory problems, all of which can interfere with the individual's ability to work and maintain a job. For more information on how Social Security decides when symptoms are severe enough to prevent work, see our article on getting a medical-vocational allowance for a mental illness.

Medical Evidence Required for PTSD

What is in your medical records means everything to the processing of a SSDI or SSI disability claim. What should your mental records have to say about your condition? There should be at least one detailed description of a typical episode of PTSD, including the frequency and duration of any panic attacks, and what brings on worsening symptoms. Your doctor should also include whether your description of your symptoms matches his opinion of your mental state. Most importantly, your medical record should include how your PTSD symptoms effect your ability to function, both at home and at work.

For information on making a disability claim with the Veterans' Administration for combat stress, see our article on getting VA disability benefits for PTSD.

Updated by: , J.D.

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