Can I Get SSI Disability for My Child's Depression?

Low-income children with a depressive or mood disorder that is hampering their social or academic development or safety may be able to get SSI.

Depression is an illness that causes a child to feel persistently hopeless or sad. While every child will feel down for short periods of time, when the condition takes over your child’s mood for longer periods of time and interferes with her ability to function, then it is considered to be the clinical condition called major depressive syndrome. Major depression in children can cause symptoms like poor self-esteem, changes in eating or sleeping habits, loss of interest in activities that the child once enjoyed, withdrawal from friends or family, irritability, and physical complaints like headaches or stomachaches.

This article discusses the rules about how children can qualify for SSI with depression. The rules for adults are somewhat different; to read about how adults with depression can qualify for Social Security disability, read our article on getting disability for adult depression.

Qualifying for SSI With Depression

If your child has mild or moderate depression, he or she will not qualify for SSI. Social Security will only consider children with severe depression for disability. (And only children from low-income families can get disability benefits from Social Security.)

The agency evaluates children who apply for disability benefits for depression by using its listing for major depressive syndrome, which is part of its listing for mood disorders. The listing was updated in 2017 and is fairly complicated.

Symptoms

To meet the requirements of the listing, a depressed child must have medical documentation of at least five of the following symptoms:

  • appetite or weight increase or decrease, or failure to make expected weight gains
  • depressed or irritable mood
  • diminished interest or pleasure in almost all activities
  • sleep disturbance
  • psychomotor retardation (physical sluggishness) or physical agitation (like pacing, hand-wringing, or severe nail-biting)
  • fatigue or loss of energy
  • feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • difficulty thinking or concentrating, and/or
  • thoughts of death or suicide.

Limitations in Functioning

In addition, to meet the listing, a child must show that his or her functioning is limited because of the depression. Your child must have either an extreme limitation in one of the following areas of functioning or a severe limitation in two of the following areas:

  • concentrating on tasks (ignoring or avoiding distractions, completing tasks in a timely manner, engaging in an activity close to others without distracting them, engaging in an activity at an appropriate and consistent pace)
  • interacting with others (cooperating with others, maintaining friendships, handling conflicts with others)
  • adapting or managing oneself (controlling one’s behavior, protecting oneself from harm, setting goals, adapting to changes), and/or
  • learning, understanding and remembering information (learning new material, following oral instructions, using reason and judgment to make decisions).

When a Child Has Made a Marginal Adjustment But Is Fragile

“Marginal adjustment” means that the child's adaptation to the requirements of daily life is fragile. The child's condition may have improved such that he or she no longer has severe or extreme limitations in functioning, but the child has minimal capacity to adapt to changes in their environment, or to demands that are not already part of their daily life. In some cases, past changes or increased demands may have caused an exacerbation of the child's symptoms or to a deterioration in the child's functioning. This may have lead to a significant change in medication or other treatment or caused the child to be hospitalized or absent from school.

In this case, the child doesn't have to show that he or she currently has the severe limitations required above. But the child's condition must be “serious and persistent” that is, there must be a medically documented history of depression over a period of at least two years. He or she must also be receiving ongoing medical treatment or mental health therapy that reduces the symptoms of depression.

Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder

Children who are irritable and have frequent explosive outbursts may be diagnosed with disruptive mood dysregulation disorder. While different than depression, it is also evaluated under the listing for mood disorders. To qualify for benefits, the disorder must have begun prior to age 10 and the child must show all of the following:

  • persistent, significant irritability or anger
  • frequent, developmentally inconsistent temper outbursts, and
  • frequent aggressive or destructive behavior.

In addition, to meet the listing, a child must show that his or her functioning is limited in the same manner as depression (see above).

Getting Help

It's not easy to get your child approved for disability benefits for depression or a mood regulation disorder. If your application is denied by Social Security, it may help your case to talk to a lawyer who specializes in Social Security disability claims. A disability attorney can tell you if you have a good chance of winning (and probably won't take your case if you don't) and can help gather the evidence that Social Security will be looking for in a disability claim for childhood depression.

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