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 look at your "residual functional capacity," or RFC, to decide whether you should be granted disability.
When you first apply for Social Security disability benefits, the Social Security Administration (SSA) sends your claim to Disability Determination Services (DDS), a state agency that works for Social Security. DDS works with a psychiatrist or a psychologist to perform a mental RFC (residual functional capacity) assessment on your claim.
Your mental RFC sets out what kind of work activities you can do despite your impairment and despite your treatment (such as antidepressant medication). The Social Security Administration (SSA) uses your RFC assessment to determine whether you're capable of performing your prior job or any other kind of work.
Your mental RFC will focus on your ability to perform mental and cognitive activities that are needed for any type of work. The SSA will look at different abilities and areas of intellectual and social functioning to determine whether you're extremely limited or not significantly limited, or somewhere in between, or whether there is "insufficient evidence."
Your mental capacity in each area is rated using five categories:
If you're only moderately limited, the SSA will review your past jobs and all unskilled jobs to see if you could perform them. Even if you've never performed unskilled work before (for example, if you had a career as a teacher before your impairment), if you're mentally capable of performing unskilled work, the SSA will name unskilled jobs you could perform and will deny you benefits.
Unless the SSA finds you markedly limited in one or more areas, you will have a difficult time getting disability benefits. If you're rated as markedly limited, it means you cannot perform even simple, unskilled work.
The SSA will consider four different areas of functioning in determining your mental RFC. Here's how the SSA assesses those areas.
The SSA will look at how well you can understand, carry out, and remember instructions. If you're markedly limited in remembering locations and procedures and in understanding very simple instructions, you can't perform unskilled work. If you're markedly limited in understanding complicated instructions, it means you can't perform semiskilled work, but you may be able to perform unskilled work.
Social functioning is also an important aspect of many jobs, and it refers to your ability to interact appropriately with other people for sustained periods of time. If you're markedly limited in any of the following areas, you can't perform unskilled work:
How well you're able to focus on interests and activities is also important in determining your mental RFC. The SSA calls this area of functioning "concentration, persistence, and pace," and it relates to your ability to pay attention and concentrate long enough to complete common work tasks. If the SSA finds you "markedly limited" in any of the following areas related to concentration and persistence, you're unable to perform unskilled work:
The SSA will also consider your ability to respond and deal with normal work pressures and stresses in a work setting. If you're markedly limited in your ability to respond to normal changes in the work environment and to be aware of normal dangers in the work environment, you're unable to perform any work, even unskilled work.
The SSA also considers your intellectual functioning in determining your mental RFC. For more information, see our article on Intellectual Functioning and Disability Claims.
You may sometimes see the phrase "decompensation" in SSA reports. "Episodes of decompensation" are periods of a temporary increase in the symptoms of your disorder that require increased medical treatment or a less stressful situation. The SSA will look at how often and how long you have episodes of decompensation.
The SSA will look at both medical and nonmedical evidence in determining your RFC.
Your medical records should include all tests (including psychological tests), reports, and observations from doctors and psychologists. Your records should specifically set forth how often, if at all, you experience things such as:
Your medical record should also contain your medical history, any "mental status" evaluations, and the results of psychological tests, diagnoses, treatments prescribed and what your response was. If your application for disability benefits didn't include all medical evidence of your mental illness, you should contact the SSA immediately and they should be able to tell you how to submit additional evidence.
The SSA will consider nonmedical evidence such as reports from people who know you, including:
These reports should describe your behavior and how well you can perform "activities of daily living." Activities of daily living include things like cleaning, cooking for yourself, shopping, using public transportation, paying bills, and having proper hygiene.
The SSA tries to figure out what your functional limitations are by using this medical and nonmedical evidence. For example, if you're extremely withdrawn and anxious around people, you may not be able to have a job that requires close interaction with others. If your disorder requires that you take medications that make you extremely drowsy and slow moving, you may not be able to have a job that requires driving a vehicle or operating dangerous machinery or equipment.
The SSA will decide whether your functional limitations are so limiting that you can't do the tasks required of any jobs. If the agency can't name any work you can do with your limitations, it will award you benefits under what's called a "medical-vocational allowance" (as opposed to being allowed under an official disability listing).
The SSA will always create a mental RFC for you. But it can be helpful to your case if your psychiatrist or psychologist submits their own opinion using a mental RFC form. (For a form you can use, 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 psychiatrist or psychologist to complete a mental RFC form for you by providing your doctors with the right mental RFC form and requesting that they complete the form.
Updated January 26, 2022