Mental Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) in a Disability Claim

To determine if you're able to work, Social Security assesses how your mental disorder limits your ability to perform job tasks.

By , Attorney · Willamette University College of Law
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

If you've been diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder that keeps you from working, but you don't meet the criteria for one of Social Security's official disability listings, the agency will make an assessment of your mental residual functional capacity (RFC) to decide whether you should get disability benefits.

Mental Residual Functional Capacity: The Social Security Definition

Your mental RFC assessment is a set of restrictions on the kind of work activities you can do despite your mental health disorder symptoms. Your mental RFC helps the Social Security Administration (SSA) determine whether you're capable of performing your prior jobs or any other work.

When you first apply for benefits, a claims examiner at Disability Determination Services (a state agency that helps process Social Security disability applications) will work with a psychiatrist or psychologist to evaluate your mental residual functional capacity, meaning what you're still able to do. Or, if you've been scheduled for a disability hearing, the administrative law judge can ask a medical expert to help assess your mental RFC.

What's in Your Mental RFC?

Your mental RFC will focus on your ability to perform mental and cognitive activities that are needed for any type of work. Claims examiners and disability judges look at different areas of intellectual and social functioning to determine whether you have any limitations in those areas.

Your residual limitations in each area are rated using five categories:

  • "None" means you're able to function in this area independently, appropriately, effectively, and on a sustained basis.
  • "Mild" means your ability to function is slightly limited.
  • "Moderate" means your ability to function is fair.
  • "Marked" means your ability to function is seriously limited, and
  • "Extreme" means you're not able to function in this area independently, appropriately, effectively, and on a sustained basis.

The more severe your symptoms are, the more limitations you'll have in your mental residual functional capacity. And the more limitations you have in your mental RFC, the less likely you'll be able to work at any job.

How Does Social Security Use Your Mental RFC?

Social Security uses your mental RFC to decide what kinds of job tasks, if any, you can do. Because the agency classifies all jobs according to how demanding the job duties are—known as the skill level—limitations in your mental RFC determine whether you can perform complex, detailed, or simple work. If your past work was too skilled for your current residual functionality and you can't perform easier, less complicated work, you'll qualify for disability benefits.

Your mental RFC can also contain limitations unrelated to your skill level. Social Security doesn't expect you to work in stressful or unsafe environments, so your RFC will rule out jobs that can aggravate your symptoms. For example, if you're very anxious around people, your RFC might limit you to jobs with minimal public contact. Or if your medications cause drowsiness, your RFC will have a restriction against jobs involving operating heavy machinery.

What Abilities Does Social Security Rate in Your Mental RFC?

Social Security looks at four different mental areas of functioning when evaluating your mental residual functional capacity. Here's how the agency assesses those areas.

Understanding, Memory, and Applying Information

Some types of jobs require the ability to follow complex instructions and procedures, while others don't require much more than remembering where tools are located. If you're limited in this area, you have trouble with tasks including:

  • describing work activity to someone else
  • asking and answering questions
  • identifying and solving problems, and
  • learning work-specific terms and instructions.

Interacting With Others

Very few jobs, if any, allow you to work without having any contact with other people. When assessing your mental RFC, Social Security takes into consideration any limitations you have in social functioning, including:

  • handling conflicts appropriately
  • responding to requests, suggestions, or feedback
  • interacting with coworkers without exhibiting distracting behaviors
  • stating your own point of view, and
  • understanding social cues.

Sustained Concentration and Persistence

Even the least demanding jobs require you to complete your job tasks on time. Your ability to focus on your job duties and see them through to completion is called "concentration, persistence, and pace." Social Security will look for any limitations you have with:

  • maintaining attention
  • keeping a routine
  • ignoring distractions
  • switching activities
  • working a full day without the need for additional breaks, and
  • showing up to work regularly and on time.

Adaptation or Managing Yourself

This area of mental functioning contains some of the most basic everyday skills, such as:

  • managing your mental state
  • avoiding hazards and dangerous situations
  • setting realistic goals
  • making plans for yourself independently
  • maintaining personal hygiene, and
  • dressing appropriately.

What Evidence Does Social Security Evaluate When Making an RFC Assessment?

Your medical evidence is the foundation of your Social Security disability application. But the agency will also review other forms of evidence, such as your activities of daily living, when making a determination about the limitations that should be included in your residual functional capacity.

Medical Evidence and Your Mental RFC

When you submit your medical records, make sure they contain all tests (including mental status evaluations), reports, and observations from doctors and psychologists. Your records should specifically describe how often you experience mental symptoms such as:

  • confusion
  • phobias or anxiety
  • depression
  • withdrawn behavior
  • delusions
  • hallucinations, or
  • paranoid ideas.

Social Security will want to see documentation in your medical records of the above symptoms, as well as your doctor's diagnosis and your treatment plan. List any medications you've been prescribed, how well you responded to them, and whether you had any side effects.

If your application for disability benefits didn't include all medical evidence of your mental illness, let Social Security know as soon as possible. The agency will tell you how to submit additional evidence.

Non-Medical Evidence and Your RFC

"Third-party function reports," your work history, and your activities of daily living questionnaire are all examples of non-medical evidence. Submit any letters from people who are very familiar with your mental health symptoms, including:

  • family
  • friends
  • coworkers
  • supervisors
  • social workers, and
  • staff in supported living environments.

Learn more in our article on how letters from family and friends can help your disability case.

Can Your Psychiatrist or Psychologist Determine Your RFC?

Social Security greatly values the opinions of doctors who've regularly treated your mental impairment, so it can be very helpful to your case if your psychiatrist or psychologist submits their assessment of your mental RFC. For an RFC form you can give to your doctor to complete, see our free mental RFC assessment form.

Unfortunately, some psychiatrists and psychologists are reluctant to complete forms for a variety of reasons, including the amount of time it takes and clinic policy. Hiring a disability advocate or lawyer can help get your doctor to fill out a mental RFC form for you. Read more in our article on how a lawyer can help get you Social Security benefits for mental illness.

Updated August 3, 2023

Do You Qualify for Disability in Your State?
Find out in minutes by taking our short quiz.

Talk to a Disability Lawyer

Need a lawyer? Start here.

How it Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you
Boost Your Chance of Being Approved

Get the Compensation You Deserve

Our experts have helped thousands like you get cash benefits.

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you