Tips to Prepare for the Social Security Disability Mental Exam

Learn what to expect and how to prepare for a mental consultative examination for Social Security.

By , J.D. · Albany Law School

If you've applied for disability benefits through the Social Security Administration (SSA), the claims examiner might require you to attend a "consultative exam" (CE). These physical or mental health exams are fairly common when your file doesn't contain recent health records (from the last 90 days or so).

Claims examiners use the results of CEs to decide both Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability claims and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) claims.

If your Social Security disability application is based on a mental health impairment or your application file contains information (like doctor's notes) about a mental health issue, you might be required to have a disability mental health exam. Social Security will arrange the appointment and pay for the mental exam—whether you're sent to your doctor for the exam or someone else.

If you expect to have a disability mental exam, there are some steps you can take to prepare for it. The first thing you should do is learn what to expect. Here are the questions you'll be asked at a mental health evaluation and some tips for passing it, plus how the process works and other information you'll be asked to provide.

What Questions Are Asked at a Disability Mental Exam?

The goal of the examination is to fill in holes in your medical records and give the Social Security disability claims examiner an accurate impression of your mental health. To fill any gaps, the psychiatrist or psychologist conducting the exam will want to know the following information about you:

  • Medical history. The psychiatrist or psychologist will want to hear from you, in your own words, what your impairments are and how they affect your everyday life and ability to work.
  • Social history. The examiner will want to know about your relationships with your family and friends and your ability to interact with others in the community—including any social activities you're currently involved in.
  • Educational background. In addition to your education level and any degrees you've earned, tell the examiner about any difficulties you had in school.
  • Work background. The examiner will want to know about your attempts to return to work and the results of those attempts.

You probably already know this information, but it could be helpful to think about these areas before your mental exam to ensure you remember everything and to speed along the examination.

Tips on How to Pass the Social Security Mental Exam

How you handle the Social Security mental exam can affect the outcome of your disability claim. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you prepare for your exam and once you're there:

  • Answer all the questions. The disability mental exam questions are designed to give the examiner a clear picture of your mental health. So it's important that you answer all the questions as accurately as you can. It's okay to take a moment to think about the question before answering.
  • Be specific. It's not enough to tell the examiner that you're depressed (or anxious or have PTSD). You need to describe your symptoms using language that will give the examiner a clear understanding of your situation. For example, if you suffer from depression, you'll want to describe your symptoms using terms like:
    • no energy or enthusiasm
    • no appetite (or can't stop eating)
    • constant sadness or irritability
    • thoughts of death or suicide
    • difficulty concentrating, or
    • trouble sleeping (or staying awake).
  • Don't answer questions you aren't asked. Answer only the questions you're asked. Don't add details the examiner hasn't asked about. If you don't fully understand a question, ask that it be restated. Don't guess about the answer you think the examiner wants.
  • Be honest. Remember, the person conducting the disability mental health exam is a professional and is trained to spot a fake. If the psychologist or psychiatrist performing the disability exam thinks you're exaggerating your symptoms ("malingering"), it can wreck your credibility and doom your claim.
  • Don't hold back. Just as you shouldn't exaggerate your mental condition, neither should you downplay it. You need to give the psychiatrist or psychologist conducting the SSI or SSDI mental evaluation a clear understanding of your limitations. Don't be embarrassed to admit that you need help with daily activities like shopping, preparing meals, or managing your money.
  • Do your best on any tests you're given. Again, any attempt to exaggerate your condition could sabotage your disability claim. If your mental condition is severe enough to prevent you from working, an honest effort on a test won't change that.

What Tests Are Done at a Mental Health Examination?

The type of tests or evaluations you'll face during a mental health exam will depend on your individual case. The Social Security claims examiner will request any tests and assessments needed to get a complete picture of your mental health and make a decision regarding disability benefits.

Depending on your mental health issues, you could face any of the four types of mental health CEs Social Security uses to evaluate disability claims based on mental health impairments, including:

  • psychological exam
  • memory scale exam
  • mental status exam, or
  • psychiatric exam.

(Learn more about each type of Social Security disability mental health exam.)

What Other Information Do I Need for the Mental Exam?

It's vital that you provide the psychiatrist or psychologist with an accurate account of your past and present medical history. You should write down important information and bring it with you to ensure you don't accidentally forget something. Your notes should include the following:

  • current medications you take
  • any previous hospitalizations and the dates of those stays
  • treatments you've received and the results of those treatments
  • previous diagnoses
  • supported living facilities in which you've lived and the dates that you lived there, and
  • your criminal history (if any).

What Should I Bring to the Mental Health Exam?

At a mental examination, you'll spend most of the appointment discussing your past and present situation with the psychiatrist or psychologist examining you. But the medical professional conducting a Social Security disability mental exam is required to verify your identity as part of the CE. So, there are a few things that you'll need to bring with you to the exam, including:

  • your Social Security claim number, and
  • a photo ID (like a driver's license or passport).

Get Ready for Your Mental Health Disability Exam

When Social Security requires you to have a mental health exam for your disability claim, you can be sure the results of the exam will have a significant impact on the outcome of your case. Because of the exam's importance to your claim, you'll want to do everything you can to prepare for it.

Understanding how the Social Security disability mental evaluation process works is an important step. Getting your information together ahead of your appointment is another.

You might also consider talking with a disability lawyer or advocate before your mental health disability exam. A lawyer can help you prepare and ensure you don't forget to mention anything the examiner needs to know about you and how your mental health affects your ability to work. Learn more about how a lawyer can help with a mental illness claim.

Updated March 13, 2024

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