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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
This area of mental functioning contains some of the most basic everyday skills, such as:
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.
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:
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.
"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:
Learn more in our article on how letters from family and friends can help your disability case.
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