Children, like adults, can struggle with mental health conditions such as depression. Social Security can provide Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits for a child's depression when the symptoms have significantly interfered with their functioning for at least twelve months.
Depression is a mental illness that causes a child to feel persistently hopeless or sad. While every child will feel down for short periods of time, major depression can take over your child's mood for longer periods of time and keep them from hitting developmental milestones.
Depression is on the list of child disabilities for SSI, so if your child's symptoms are severe enough—and your family meets the SSI income and resource requirements—your child can qualify for benefits.
Major depression in children can cause both mental and physical symptoms. Poor self-esteem, loss of interest in activities that the child once enjoyed, withdrawal from friends and family, and increased irritability are hallmarks of a child's depression. Depression can also manifest itself in physical ways, such as changes in eating or sleeping habits, headaches, or stomachaches.
Children are treated for depression in mostly the same ways that adults are. Counseling, behavioral therapies, and, in some cases, antidepressant medications can be very effective at managing your child's symptoms.
Social Security evaluates child SSI applications for depression according to the criteria of its Listing 112.04 for depressive, bipolar, and related disorders. Depression is a "listed impairment"—a condition that the agency has determined to be automatically disabling, provided that your child's medical record contains specific evidence.
The evidence that Social Security will be looking for depends on the type of depression or related mental illness that your child has been diagnosed with, such as depressive, bipolar, or disruptive mood dysregulation disorder. Social Security refers to the characteristic symptoms of a specific diagnosis as "paragraph A" criteria.
Depressive disorder requires evidence of five or more of the following Paragraph A symptoms:
Bipolar disorder (sometimes called "manic depression") requires evidence of three or more of the following Paragraph A symptoms:
Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, diagnosed before the age of 10, requires evidence of all of the following Paragraph A symptoms:
Meeting the "paragraph A" requirements is just one part of how Social Security decides whether your child meets the listing, however. You'll also have to show that your child has significant functional limitations ("paragraph B") or that they are only "marginally adjusted" to daily life ("paragraph C").
Social Security can't award SSI disability to your child based only on a diagnosis of depression. Because some children are able to successfully manage their mental health symptoms with therapy and medication, the agency needs to see that your child's symptoms aren't being successfully treated and cause an "extreme" limitation in one, or "marked" limitations in two, of the following mental areas:
Marked limitations are limitations in areas where your child struggles to function independently without help. Extreme limitations are limitations in areas where your child rarely, if ever, can function on their own. For example, a child who needs constant reminders to bathe might have a marked limitation in the "managing oneself" area. But a child who refuses to bathe entirely will likely have an extreme limitation in that same area.
Some children don't currently have marked or extreme functional limitations. But the only reason they're able to function as well as they do is because they get a lot of help. When children perform well in a highly structured or sheltered environment, but deteriorate quickly when taken out of that environment, Social Security considers them to be only marginally adjusted to daily life.
Marginally adjusted children don't need to show that they have the severe limitations required by the Paragraph B criteria in order to meet Listing 112.04. But Social Security needs to see that their condition is "serious and persistent." The agency will want evidence of a comprehensive support system that your child can't function without, such as special education classes, social workers, therapists, or family members.
Not all children with depression are going to be able to meet the requirements of Listing 112.04. But they can still get SSI disability benefits if they can show that their symptoms are functionally equivalent to the listings. "Functional equivalence" means that your child is just as disabled as a child who meets the listing requirements exactly, but that their disability manifests itself in a different way.
You'll still need to show that your child has an extreme limitation in one, or marked limitations in two, functional areas. However, Social Security uses slightly different functional areas—also called domains—to decide if your child's mental condition is functionally equal to the listings. The six domains encompass a broader range of behaviors, both mental and physical:
In order to determine whether your child's depression functionally equals the listings, Social Security will ask doctors, therapists, and school teachers for their observations about your child's mood and behavior. The agency will look for signs that your child's social development is behind that of other children the same age and to what extent.
Depression is frequently comorbid with (occurs at the same time as) other mental illnesses. You can find out more about childhood disability for mental health issues in our other articles:
It's not easy to get your child approved for disability benefits for depression or a mental health disorder. If your application is denied by Social Security, consider talking to a lawyer who specializes in disability claims. An experienced 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 the agency will be looking for in an SSI claim for childhood depression.
Updated April 17, 2023