How to Get Veterans Disability Benefits for PTSD

If you were exposed to an incident during service that causes symptoms of fear, distress, and avoidance, you may qualify for VA disability benefits.

By , Contributing Author
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney (Seattle University School of Law)

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the most common mental health problem suffered by troops returning from combat. If you're a veteran of the United States Armed Forces, and have developed symptoms of PTSD as a result of your service, you're likely eligible for a PTSD VA disability rating.

What Is PTSD?

PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder that develops after you've experienced an extremely shocking, scary, or dangerous event. For veterans, the traumatic event often involves exposure to a life-threatening incident, whether for themselves or others. (In the past, PTSD has also been called "war neurosis," "shell shock," and "battle fatigue.") Violence, sexual assault, serious accidents, and natural disasters are other common causes of PTSD in veterans.

Veterans with a PTSD diagnosis experience intense fear, helplessness, or horror related to the traumatic event. They may experience symptoms such as intrusive thoughts, paranoia, and a heightened state of alertness ("hypervigilance").

While most people experience some distress related to tense or unpleasant situations, PTSD symptoms occur for longer than one month and cause significant disruption in social or work-related functioning.

Getting VA Disability Benefits for PTSD

If you're a veteran who struggles with symptoms related to a traumatic event ("stressor"), the VA can assign you a disability rating for PTSD if you meet all of the following requirements:

  • you have a PTSD diagnosis from a doctor,
  • the stressor happened during your service, and
  • the stressor caused your current symptoms.

Proving the relationship between your PTSD diagnosis, your current symptoms, and your in-service stressor is called "establishing service connection."

Prior to 2010, veterans had to provide documentation of the stressor that caused their PTSD symptoms—a requirement that was often time-consuming and difficult to fulfill. Now, the VA will usually find a veterans' testimony to be sufficient to establish a service connection for PTSD. For example:

  • Veterans who were diagnosed with PTSD while enlisted or saw combat can testify to a service connection if the stressor is "consistent with the circumstances, conditions, or hardships" of their service.
  • Veterans who have PTSD as a result of "fear of hostile military or terrorist activity" can provide an opinion from a VA psychiatrist or psychologist confirming that the stressor supports a diagnosis of PTSD.
  • Veterans who were prisoners of war (POWs) can testify to a service connection if their stressor was related to the circumstances, conditions, or hardships of the POW experience.
  • Veterans who experienced in-service personal assault can provide medical records (including those from doctors, mental health providers, hospitals, and crisis centers), police records, or statements from friends, family, service members, and clergy.

But if the VA finds that "clear and convincing evidence" exists that no stressor occurred, the department won't find a service connection. However, that standard is a high bar—basically, there needs to be documentation that a stressor didn't occur—so most veterans with PTSD won't need to worry.

What Are the VA Disability Ratings for PTSD?

The VA evaluates PTSD disability compensation claims according to the Schedule of Rating Disabilities. Section 4.130 of the Schedule lists several dozen mental disorders that are eligible for a VA disability rating, including PTSD (diagnostic code 9411).

PTSD VA ratings are based on how severely symptoms of the disorder impair a veteran's everyday life and ability to work. The VA uses the General Rating Formula for mental disorders to decide what disability rating percentage to assign a veteran struggling with PTSD. Ratings range between 0%-100%, depending on the degree of impairment, as follows:

  • A PTSD rating of 100% means the veteran has extreme symptoms such as persistent delusions and hallucinations, disorientation to time and place, maintenance of minimal hygiene standards, and memory loss for the names of close friends or relatives.
  • A PTSD rating of 70% means the veteran has deficiencies in most occupational and social functions, such as impaired impulse control, obsessive rituals that interfere with routine activities, spatial disorientation, and inability to maintain relationships.
  • A PTSD rating of 50% means the veteran has reduced reliability and productivity due to symptoms such as having weekly panic attacks, trouble understanding commands, forgetting to complete tasks, and mood disturbances.
  • A PTSD rating of 30% means the veteran has occasional interruptions in work productivity as a result of symptoms such as mild memory loss, infrequent panic attacks, depressed mood, anxiety, and sleep impairment.
  • A PTSD rating of 10% means the veteran has mild or transient symptoms that only interfere with work productivity during times of significant stress.
  • A PTSD rating of 0% means the veteran has been formally diagnosed with PTSD, but doesn't have any functionally limiting symptoms. A 0% disability rating doesn't qualify a vet for disability compensation, but still grants access to benefits such as health care.

If the PTSD symptoms are the result of a highly stressful event that required a service member to be released from military duty early, the VA will assign the member a temporary disability rating of 50%. Within six months of discharge, the VA will conduct another evaluation to determine if the rating should be changed.

How to File a VA Claim for PTSD

You can apply for VA disability compensation online, in person, or over the phone with your VA regional office, or by printing out and mailing VA Form 21-526EZ, Application for Disability Compensation and Related Compensation Benefits to the following address:

Department of Veterans Affairs
Claims Intake Center
PO Box 4444
Janesville, WI 53547-4444

Veterans who file a claim for disability benefits due to PTSD need to submit one of two additional forms with the application:

  • VA Form 21-0781, A Statement in Support of Claim for Service Connection for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or
  • VA Form 21-0781a, A Statement in Support of Claim for Service Connection for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Secondary to Personal Assault

After you file your claim for PTSD disability benefits, the VA will likely require you to attend a compensation and pension (C&P) exam to discuss how your symptoms affect your life. Many veterans are unsure what to say to get disability for PTSD, and it can be hard to open up to the doctor. Honesty is the best policy—don't downplay your symptoms, but don't exaggerate them either.

Additional Resources for Veterans with PTSD

To help veterans assess their mental health symptoms, the VA offers a free, anonymous online screening for PTSD. You can also learn more about the signs, symptoms, and treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder at the VA's National Center for PTSD.

Veterans who are unable to work full-time due to PTSD symptoms may qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. For more information, see our article on Social Security disability benefits for PTSD.

Updated June 5, 2023

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