The Social Security Administration (SSA) recognizes that symptoms from bipolar disorder can significantly interfere with your ability to work. In 2021, 12% of applicants who were awarded disability benefits had a mental disorder such as bipolar—the second highest category of severe impairments after musculoskeletal disorders.
If you're unable to keep a full-time job for at least twelve months due to symptoms from bipolar disorder, you may qualify for SSDI or SSI disability benefits.
Bipolar disorder—sometimes referred to as manic depression—is a mental illness that causes extreme ups and downs in a person's mood, energy, and ability to function. Bipolar disorder can be classified into several types (such as bipolar I, bipolar II, and cyclothymia) depending on the frequency, intensity, and duration of symptoms.
Bipolar disorder is characterized by alternating episodes of mania—a state of elevated mood and hyperactivity—and depression.
Doctors refer to this "180" shift in mood as cycling. Some people cycle rapidly between manic and depressive episodes, while others have episodes that last for weeks or months. Episodes can also vary in intensity. People with bipolar I have "full-blown" manic episodes, while people with bipolar II have milder symptoms (hypomania). In cyclothymia, both the depressive and manic symptoms are milder.
Bipolar disorder is one of Social Security's "Blue Book" listed impairments, meaning that you can qualify for benefits automatically if your medical records contain specific evidence of limitations that the SSA has already determined are disabling. You can also get disability for bipolar if your symptoms are severe enough that you can't hold down even a basic, unskilled job.
Social Security evaluates disability applications for bipolar according to Listing 12.04. If you meet the criteria of 12.04, the SSA will award you benefits without needing to determine whether any jobs exist that you can do. Qualifying for disability this way is called "meeting a listed impairment."
The requirements for meeting listing 12.04 are broken up into two categories. The first category ("category A") contains the symptoms of bipolar that need to be documented in your medical records. The second category ("category B") contains the functional limitations you need to show as a result of your symptoms. You'll need enough evidence from both categories to get disability for bipolar based on the listing.
The first step in meeting listing 12.04 is showing that you have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and at least three of the following symptoms:
Typically, these symptoms will manifest during a manic phase. Make sure that you tell your doctors about the behavior you display while experiencing a manic period so that they can diagnose you correctly.
Because some people with bipolar are able to manage their symptoms with counseling, therapy, or a combination of both, the SSA also needs to see that your bipolar disorder causes an "extreme" limitation in one, or a "marked" limitation in two, of the following areas:
Extreme limitations are more severe than marked limitations. For example, somebody who needs frequent reminders to shower—but eventually does—will probably have a marked limitation in managing oneself, while somebody who doesn't bathe at all is likely to have an extreme limitation in that area.
Most applicants who meet listing 12.04 for bipolar disorder do have evidence of marked or extreme limitations. But you can meet the listing without those limitations if you can show that you're only able to function as well as you do because you get a lot of help. If you can't function without a support system—such as social workers, group homes, or family members who make sure that you're taking care of yourself—the SSA will take this into consideration.
Even if your bipolar symptoms don't cause marked or extreme functional limitations, they can still prevent you from working. Social Security can find you disabled if you have a residual functional capacity (RFC) that rules out all full-time work.
Your RFC is a set of limitations that reflect the most you're capable of doing, mentally and physically, in a work environment. Social Security will review your medical records, your activities of daily living, and any doctors' opinions in order to determine your RFC.
A typical RFC for somebody with bipolar disorder will contain the following restrictions:
The more severe your bipolar symptoms are, the more limitations you'll have in your RFC. And the more limitations you have in your RFC, the less likely you'll be able to work any job full-time.
The SSA looks at your work history and compares the demands of your past jobs with the restrictions in your RFC. If Social Security doesn't think you could perform your past work, the agency then determines whether any other jobs exist that you could do.
For applicants younger than 50—which is when most bipolar symptoms develop—this means being unable to perform low-stress, simple work without public contact, such as cleaning eyeglasses. (The rules for applicants older than 50 are a little different).
Even the least demanding jobs require employees to show up and complete their job duties on time. But if you're too distracted during a manic episode to do simple tasks in a timely manner, or you're calling in sick for a lengthy depressive episode, it's unlikely that you'd hold even the easiest jobs for long.
In your RFC, a reduction in productivity caused by absences or lack of focus is called "off-task" behavior. If you spend more time off-task than employers will tolerate—generally between 10-20%—the SSA should find you disabled.
Your medical records are the foundation of a successful disability application. Social Security needs to see that your symptoms and limitations are based on medical evidence, so the best way to increase your chances is by getting regular medical treatment.
You can also improve your odds by submitting supporting statements from your doctors, friends, and family, as well as addressing any evidence in your record that might hurt your case.
After you file your disability application, the SSA will obtain—with your permission—progress notes from the medical providers who treat your bipolar disorder. Your psychiatric record should include:
If you haven't been receiving consistent mental health treatment for your bipolar disorder, you'll have a harder time convincing the SSA that your symptoms are disabling. But because many disability applicants face barriers to accessing medical treatment, the agency won't hold it against you if you can't pay for medication or your nearest doctor is too far away.
For more information, see our article about how to get disability without health insurance.
If you have a psychologist, psychiatrist, or therapist who you've seen on a regular basis for at least several months, consider asking them to submit a letter about how severe they think your bipolar symptoms are. The SSA gives extra consideration to opinions from "treating sources" who have an ongoing relationship with you. These sources can provide special insight into the ways that bipolar disorder limits you.
You can download a blank mental RFC form to give to your medical provider. If you're not sure whether your psychiatrist or therapist will fill out a supportive statement, learn how to get your doctor's help to approve your disability claim.
If you have a close friend or relative who has first-hand experience with your mental health struggles, you may want to ask them to write a third-party statement about the limitations your bipolar causes. Be sure to choose somebody who has personally witnessed how your bipolar disorder affects your activities of daily living—for example, a friend who has seen you acting erratically during a manic phase.
Applications for Social Security benefits can sometimes contain what disability lawyers call "bad facts," such as a history of drug or alcohol addiction (DAA). DAA is common in medical records for people with bipolar disorder, as engaging in risky behavior—such as abusing drugs or alcohol—is one of the symptoms of mania.
If your case file shows evidence of DAA, Social Security won't automatically deny your application. Instead, the agency will determine whether the limitations from your bipolar disorder would still exist even if drugs or alcohol weren't in the picture.
Because the signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder can mimic or overlap those of DAA, your case will be stronger if you can establish a period of sobriety or abstinence while you're receiving medical treatment. Having a period where you're not using drugs or alcohol gives Social Security an idea of your mental health "baseline" without interference from the effects of DAA.
Unfortunately, there's no guaranteed shortcut to getting disability based on bipolar disorder. Most applications require further development—meaning the SSA needs more evidence from doctors or vocational experts—before the agency can make a decision.
However, if you already have exceptionally strong evidence when you submit your application, you may get fast-tracked for expedited approval under Social Security's Quick Disability Determination process. Otherwise, the typical wait before approval is over two years.
You can begin your disability application in several easy ways:
Applying for disability benefits is a time-consuming process, and can be intimidating if you're doing it without any help. Consider getting an experienced disability lawyer or advocate on your side. A lawyer or advocate will be able to sort through your medical records, strengthen any weaknesses in your application, and handle communications with Social Security.
Updated June 15, 2023