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

Children with severe depression who come from low-income families might qualify for SSI disability benefits.

By , J.D. · University of Virginia School of Law
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

Children, like adults, can struggle with mental health conditions such as depression. Social Security can provide children's disability benefits through Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for a child's depression when the symptoms have significantly interfered with their functioning for at least twelve months.

What Does Depression in Children Look Like?

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.

Symptoms of Childhood Depression

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.

Treatment for Childhood Depression

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.

How Your Child's Depression Can Qualify for Disability Using the Mental Illness Listings

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.

Criteria for "Paragraph A" Depression and Related Mental Illness Symptoms

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:

  • depressed or irritable mood
  • diminished interest in almost all activities
  • appetite disturbance with a change in weight, or failure to achieve expected weight gain
  • sleep disturbance
  • psychomotor agitation (such as hand-wringing or pacing back and forth) or psychomotor retardation (being sluggish and moving slowly)
  • decreased energy
  • feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • difficulty concentrating or thinking, or
  • thoughts of death or suicide.

Bipolar disorder (sometimes called "manic depression") requires evidence of three or more of the following Paragraph A symptoms:

  • pressured (abnormally fast) speech
  • flight of ideas (switching topics rapidly)
  • inflated self-esteem
  • decreased need for sleep
  • distractibility
  • risky behavior, or
  • increase in goal-directed activity (starting things you can't finish) or psychomotor agitation.

Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, diagnosed before the age of 10, requires evidence of all of the following Paragraph A symptoms:

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

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").

Marked or Extreme Limitations in Functioning: The Paragraph B Criteria

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:

  • understanding, remembering, or applying information (learning new material, following instructions, making decisions)
  • interacting with others (working in groups, making friendships, handling conflicts)
  • concentrating, persisting, and maintaining pace (finishing homework on time, completing chores, avoiding distractions), or
  • adapting and managing oneself (avoiding hazards, maintaining hygiene, adapting to changes).

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.

Marginal Adjustment and the Paragraph C Criteria

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.

Qualifying for Disability When Your Child's Depression Functionally Equals the Listings

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:

  • acquiring and using information
  • attending and completing tasks
  • interacting and relating to others
  • moving about and manipulating objects
  • caring for self, and
  • health and physical well-being.

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.

More Information About Childhood Mental Health Disability

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:

Having Legal Representation Can Increase Your Chances

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

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