Getting Disability Benefits for Bipolar Disorder

You can get disability for bipolar if you have symptoms of mania, such as hyperactivity and distractibility, that affect your functional abilities.

By , Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

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.

What Is Bipolar Disorder?

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.

  • During a manic phase, you may feel overconfident, abnormally upbeat, and more likely to engage in risky behaviors.
  • During a depressive episode, you may feel overwhelmingly sad, act withdrawn, and lack interest in any activities.

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.

Is Bipolar Disorder a Disability?

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.

Getting Disability Benefits for Bipolar Based on the SSA Listing

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.

Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder

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:

  • speaking in an unnaturally fast, frenzied manner ("pressured speech")
  • quickly changing ideas and thought patterns ("flight of ideas")
  • inflated self-esteem, usually with false beliefs
  • decreased need for sleep
  • distractibility
  • involvement in risky activities with painful consequences that you don't recognize, and
  • increase in physical agitation (such as pacing or fidgeting) or in "goal-directed activity" (such as taking on new projects).

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.

Functional Limitations From Bipolar Disorder

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:

  • understanding, remembering, or using information (such as following instructions or giving directions)
  • interacting with others in socially appropriate ways
  • concentrating and maintaining pace when performing tasks (being able to finish what you start), and
  • adapting or managing oneself (including controlling your behavior, adapting to new situations, maintaining hygiene, and paying bills).

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.

Getting Benefits for Bipolar Based on Reduced Functional Capacity

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.

What Is Your Residual Functional Capacity?

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:

  • whether you can perform skilled, semi-skilled, or unskilled jobs
  • how frequently you can interact with coworkers, supervisors, or the general public
  • how long you can focus on tasks, and
  • whether you'd need extra breaks or unexcused absences from work.

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.

How Does Social Security Use Your RFC?

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.

How to Increase Your Chances of Getting Disability for Bipolar

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.

Submit All Medical Records Documenting Your Bipolar Disorder

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:

  • your medication history, including any mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, and antidepressants that you've tried (like lithium, Seroquel, or Zoloft)
  • comments about whether your medications are effective at treating your symptoms along with any side effects you might have, such as drowsiness
  • your doctor's or counselor's observations about how you're feeling and acting during a visit
  • mental status examinations showing any abnormalities in your thinking
  • any hospitalizations for symptoms of bipolar disorder, and
  • other treatments you may have tried, such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

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.

Ask Your Doctors or Counselors to Write a Medical Source Statement

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.

Ask Friends or Family Members to Write a Witness Letter

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.

Address Any Harmful Evidence in Your Record

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.

How Can I Get Disability for Bipolar Disorder Fast?

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.

Starting a Disability Claim for Bipolar Disorder

You can begin your disability application in several easy ways:

  • Go online at
  • Call 800-772-1213 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. If you're deaf or hard of hearing, you can call the TTY number at 800-325-0778.
  • Go in person to your local Social Security field office. You can find your nearest SSA office here.

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

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