Disability Benefits for Schizoaffective Disorder

Individuals suffering from schizoaffective disorder have a good chance of getting Social Security disability benefits.

By , Contributing Author
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Schizoaffective disorder is a 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 the symptoms can have periods where they are very present followed periods with few to no symptoms.

This disorder can be quite disabling and may prevent an individual from being able to work. If you are unable to work 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 speech
  • rapid speech or speech that cannot be followed or understood by others
  • paranoia
  • delusions that special messages are hidden in common places
  • lack of concern with hygiene or grooming
  • extremes in mood (either very good or very bad mood)
  • sleep problems
  • concentration issues
  • difficulties with memory
  • hallucinations, and
  • social isolation.

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.

How to Qualify for Disability Benefits

To qualify for SSDI and/or SSI, individuals with schizoaffective disorder must prove that they are disabled and unable to work in one of three ways: by meeting the requirements of a disability listing, equaling the requirements of a listing, or proving they are unable to perform any job.

Meeting the Listing

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 step for individuals with schizoaffective disorder is to show 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).

Note that this listing was updated in 2017 and no longer includes emotional withdrawal or isolation as a listed symptom (way to qualify under the listing).

The second step is to show that you have severe or extreme limitations in certain areas. You must have either an extreme limitation in one of the following areas or a "marked" (severe) limitation in two of 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)
  • learning, understanding and remembering information (including following instructions and applying new knowledge to tasks).

If you are not currently suffering from any extreme or severe limitations in the above areas because you are living in a highly protected or supervised situation or you are undergoing intense therapy, you can still provide certain documentation to fulfill the listing. You must show that:

  • Your schizoaffective disorder has been serious and persistent over a period of at least two years.
  • You are undergoing ongoing medical treatment, mental health therapy, or living in a highly structured or protected setting, and
  • Your adaptation is fragile, meaning that you have minimal capacity to adapt to changes or new mental demands. In other words, it is likely that a change in environment would cause "decompensation" (an increase in symptoms and a loss of function) to occur.

Your Residual Functional Capacity

Even with medical records that show a history of schizoaffective disorder, you may be unable to prove that you meet the requirements of 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 alleviated by taking anti-psychotic medication.

In this case, a psychologist or psychiatrist at Social Security will fill out a form for you creating your mental "residual functional capacity" (RFC). Your RFC describes what types of tasks you can do despite your limitations.

Someone with schizoaffective disorder might be able to do simple unskilled work but suffer from anxiety that might lead to social withdrawal or emotional outbursts or might have substantial difficulty dealing with members of the public. Paranoia, hallucinations, and delusions may make acting properly in a work place impossible. Distractions combined with memory problems could further affect their ability to complete tasks in a timely manner. Social Security could 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 on our article on how Social Security evaluates mental limitations on the ability to work.

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