Can I Get Disability for Schizoaffective Disorder?

Social Security Disability applicants suffering from schizoaffective disorder should have medical records that show they sometimes disconnect with reality and have severe mood swings.

By , J.D. · Albany Law School
Updated 7/15/2022

Schizoaffective disorder is a serious mental disorder in which individuals suffer from mood problems and a loss of contact with reality. This combination of depression/mania and psychosis can be cyclical, meaning that individuals can have periods with unmanageable symptoms followed by periods with few to no symptoms.

Schizoaffective disorder is usually diagnosed in the late teen years or early adulthood. Some people with schizoaffective disorder are misdiagnosed at first as having bipolar disorder.

Is Schizoaffective Disorder a Disability?

Many people with schizoaffective disorder are able to get by with the right medication and a good psychiatrist or therapist. But for others, the disorder can be quite disabling and prevents them from being able to work a full-time job.

If you are unable to work, or hold down a job, due to this disorder, you may be eligible for Social Security disability, including Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and/or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Disabling Symptoms of Schizoaffective Disorder

Individuals who suffer from schizoaffective disorder can have a range of symptoms that can interfere with work. Symptoms can include:

  • illogical or disorganized thoughts and speech
  • rapid speech or speech that cannot be followed or understood by others
  • paranoia
  • hallucinations (such as hearing voices) and delusions (false and strange beliefs)
  • extremes in mood (either very good or very bad mood)
  • sleep problems
  • difficulties with memory and concentration, and
  • lack of concern with hygiene or grooming

Beyond the symptoms, individuals with schizoaffective disorder may also suffer from behavioral problems that can include:

  • drug abuse
  • difficulty following through with medication or treatment
  • manic behavior (for example, binge eating or going on large spending sprees), and
  • suicidal behavior.

Schizoaffective disorder has some symptoms in common with schizophrenia (see our article on getting disability for schizophrenia).

How to Qualify for Disability Benefits for Schizoaffective Disorder

To qualify for SSDI and/or SSI, individuals with schizoaffective disorder must prove they're disabled and unable to work in one of two ways:

  • meeting the requirements of a disability listing, or
  • proving they're unable to perform any job.

Meeting a Disability Listing With Schizoaffective Disorder

Social Security evaluates schizoaffective disorder under its impairment listing for "schizophrenic spectrum and other psychotic disorders," listing 12.03 (or 112.03 for children and teenagers).

The first requirement is that an individual with schizoaffective disorder must have evidence in their medical records that they have one or more of the following symptoms at least on a regular or intermittent basis:

  • delusions or hallucinations
  • illogical thinking, as evidenced through disorganized speech, or
  • grossly disorganized behavior or catatonia (rigid muscles, unresponsiveness, or inappropriate actions).

The second step is that their records must show that they have severe or extreme limitations in certain areas. They must have either one extreme limitation or two "marked" (severe) limitations in the following areas:

  • adapting or managing oneself (regulating one's emotions, adapting to changes, having practical personal skills like hygiene and wearing appropriate attire)
  • interacting with others (in socially appropriate ways)
  • concentrating on tasks (being able to finish work at a reasonable pace), and
  • learning, understanding, and remembering information (including following instructions and applying new knowledge to tasks).

Applicants who aren't currently suffering from extreme or severe limitations in the above areas because of living in a highly protective situation or undergoing intense therapy can still provide certain documentation to fulfill the listing. They must show that:

  • Their schizoaffective disorder has been serious and persistent over a period of at least two years.
  • They are undergoing ongoing medical treatment, mental health therapy, or living in a highly structured or protected setting, and
  • Their adaptation is fragile, meaning that they have minimal capacity to adapt to changes or new mental demands.

Qualifying With a Low Residual Functional Capacity

Even if your medical records show a history of schizoaffective disorder, they might not have the exact evidence required to prove that you meet the listing for schizophrenic spectrum and psychotic disorders. For instance, Social Security may find that your ability to manage yourself and have normal social interactions are only moderately limited, not severely limited. Or Social Security may believe that your symptoms and limitations are well managed by taking antipsychotic medication.

If you don't meet the listing, a psychologist or psychiatrist at Social Security will fill out a form for you, creating your mental "residual functional capacity" (RFC). Your mental RFC describes what types of tasks you can do despite your limitations. The agency will then compare your RFC to a list of jobs to see if your symptoms prevent you from working any job on a consistent basis.

An RFC for someone with schizoaffective disorder might reflect that they can do simple unskilled work but:

  • suffer from anxiety that might lead to social withdrawal
  • experience emotional outbursts
  • be unable to complete tasks in a timely manner due to memory problems or distractions
  • act oddly due to paranoia, hallucinations, or delusions, or
  • have substantial difficulty dealing with members of the public.

Social Security might agree that there is no job that someone with the combined effect of these limitations can do on a regular and sustained basis.

Social Security will look at all of your mental limitations and any physical limitations, as well as your age, education level, and work history, in determining your ability to work. For more information, see our article on how Social Security evaluates mental limitations on the ability to work.

Increasing Your Chances of Getting Benefits

An important part of applying for disability is letting Social Security know how your symptoms interfere with your activities of daily living (ADLs). Don't rely on your diagnosis to get you benefits. You can share the details about how severely your condition affects you through either:

Applying for disability benefits isn't easy, but it's important to take it slowly and fill out every form in detail. If you'd like help with your application, consider talking to an experienced disability advocate or attorney. An advocate or attorney can fill out the application for you, make sure you have the right medical records, and go to your disability appeal hearing with you.

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