Disability Benefits for Dysthymia

If your depressed mood has interfered with your life for at least two years, Social Security might award you disability benefits for dysthymia.

By , Attorney (Seattle University School of Law)

Dysthymia (dis-THIGH-me-uh) is also known as persistent depressive disorder. It's one of the two main types of clinical depression, along with major depressive disorder. The symptoms of dysthymia aren't as intense as those of major depressive disorder, but they can last longer—at least two years.

If you've been diagnosed with dysthymia, you might find it hard to enjoy even happy occasions, and become grumpy or withdrawn in social situations. You might have dysthymia in addition to other mental impairments like anxiety or bipolar disorder. Dysthymia can also result from illnesses that limit your physical activities or cause pain.

More than 3 million cases of dysthymia are diagnosed in the United States every year. Out of the adult population, elderly people and those with chronic physical problems are more likely to suffer from dysthymia, and women are twice as likely to be affected as men.

What Are the Symptoms of Dysthymia?

The symptoms of dysthymia are similar to, and may overlap with, the symptoms of major depression. They can include:

  • changes in appetite, such as overeating or not eating
  • changes in your sleep cycle, such as insomnia or oversleeping
  • low energy or fatigue
  • poor concentration or difficulty making decisions
  • feelings of hopelessness, and
  • low self-esteem.

Typical treatments for dysthymia include antidepressants and talk therapy. Your doctor might also recommend that you make changes in your lifestyle, such as starting regular exercise if you lead a sedentary lifestyle.

Is Dysthymia Disabling?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) recognizes that symptoms from mental illness can prevent you from working. For example, if your concentration is poor as a result of your mental impairment, you might not be able to complete even the simplest tasks at work.

Dysthymia does appear to be less severe than major depression, although it usually lasts longer. But some people with dysthymia can find that their symptoms later worsen to the extent that they're diagnosed with major depression. Dysthymia can also magnify other mental impairments such as anxiety, or physical conditions like fibromyalgia.

Dysthymia on its own. Getting disability benefits for dysthymia alone can be challenging. The SSA might find that, while your symptoms prevent you from doing many jobs, you're still able to do work that doesn't involve a lot of contact with other people. But, if you can't manage even minimal social interactions, all types of jobs might be ruled out for you.

When dysthymia gets worse. If your dysthymia worsens over time, the SSA can consider your first dysthymia diagnosis as a potential onset date for a later determination that you're disabled due to major depression.

Dysthymia combined with other conditions. Because people with dysthymia are often diagnosed with other conditions, the SSA will look at the combined effect of applicants' impairments when determining whether they can work. Even if your dysthymia isn't disabling by itself, if you have other limitations, Social Security is more likely to find that these, in total, add up to a finding of disability than if dysthymia is your only condition.

How Does Social Security Evaluate a Dysthymia Claim?

When you apply for disability benefits, one of the first questions Social Security asks you is to list the illnesses, injuries, or conditions that are preventing you from working. In SSA lingo, your response to this question is called your allegation of impairments. It's the "why" you're disabled.

To determine whether you have a "severe impairment," the SSA will look at your medical record for signs and symptoms of dysthymia. Severe impairments are conditions that have significantly affected your daily routine for at least 12 months.

One of the requirements for a dysthymia diagnosis is that you've had the symptoms for at least two years, so, with the proper medical records, you shouldn't have difficulty meeting what the SSA calls the 12-month durational requirement. But because dysthymia is milder than major depression, it can be harder to show that your symptoms have had a significant impact on your life.

Part of your disability application includes a questionnaire called the "function report." In the function report, make sure to let the SSA know, in detail, how your dysthymia makes it harder for you to do activities like go grocery shopping, pay your bills, or cook a meal. Because a lack of energy or motivation is one of the most common symptoms of dysthymia, if you're struggling to complete even basic chores like taking a shower or getting dressed, the SSA needs to know. The agency will take that into consideration when deciding if you'd be able to complete work tasks.

What Evidence Do I Need to Get Disability for Dysthymia?

In addition to your function report, Social Security will want to see that you've been receiving consistent treatment for your dysthymia. Don't forget to tell the SSA which doctors you've been seeing and when you started treatment.

The SSA will send you a release form, asking for permission to obtain your medical records. Once you've given the green light, the agency will review your doctors' treatment notes to see what they have to say about your mental state.

Ideally, your medical record will contain most, if not all, of the following:

  • progress notes showing that you're regularly going to a doctor or therapist
  • your doctor's observations about how you're feeling and acting during a visit
  • comments about the effectiveness of medications you're taking, and
  • mental status examinations showing any abnormalities in your thinking.

If you have a doctor or counselor whom you've seen consistently for a long time—say, over a year—it can be very helpful to your disability claim to ask one or both of them to write a medical source statement about your dysthymia. Social Security values the opinions of mental health providers who've seen your ups and downs over time, and who can shed light on how your mental limitations might prevent you from working.

Applying for Disability Benefits for Dysthymia

Social Security provides several easy ways to start your disability application:

  • File online at https://www.ssa.gov/applyfordisability/.
  • File over the phone by calling 800-772-1213 from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. If you're deaf or hard of hearing, you can call the TTY number at 800-325-0778.
  • File in person at your local Social Security field office. You can locate your field office here.

If you'd like help with your application, think about working with an experienced disability attorney. According to a survey of our readers, applicants who filed an initial application without expert help were denied 80% of the time. If you aren't sure whether you qualify for disability benefits, consider requesting a case evaluation from a legal professional.

Updated May 11, 2022

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