Social Security Benefits for Mental Illness: How a Lawyer Can Help

Here's why it makes sense to hire a disability lawyer for your Social Security claim for mental illness.

By , J.D. · University of Baltimore School of Law
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

If you have a mental health illness that's preventing you from working, you could qualify for Social Security disability benefits. Hiring an experienced disability attorney can help increase your chances for approval, especially for applications ("claims") based on mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression.

What Are the Benefits of Working With a Lawyer for Your Mental Illness Disability Claim?

Many people with mental health issues find it difficult to complete basic tasks. People with anxiety and depression can find the process of applying for disability especially overwhelming, which can magnify common symptoms of fatigue, irritability, and forgetfulness.

Having an attorney who makes sure that your forms are submitted on time, follows up regularly with your doctors, and maintains communication with the Social Security Administration (SSA) can help take some of the stress out of your disability claim.

How Do Social Security Disability Lawyers Help Win Your Mental Health Disability Claim?

Social Security disability attorneys are familiar with the ins and outs of the (often confusing) disability determination process. Most importantly, your disability lawyer will know which medical records to obtain and how to get them. Additionally, your lawyer will be able to:

Your Lawyer Can Get the Medical Records Documenting Your Mental Health Illness

Your medical records are the foundation of your Social Security disability claim. The SSA needs to see that you've been receiving treatment for your mental health before the agency can decide whether your condition is serious enough to keep you from working.

Examples of medical records that your lawyer will want to obtain include:

  • progress notes from your psychiatrist, psychologist, counselor, or therapist that contain their observations on how you're functioning during your visits (for example, if you're tearful, angry, or withdrawn)
  • mental status evaluations documenting any abnormalities in your thought process (such as poor memory recall or being overly distracted)
  • medications that you're taking (like Celexa or Ativan) as well as whether you're taking them as prescribed and if you're experiencing side effects, and
  • inpatient hospitalizations for your mental health condition.

Your Lawyer Can Help You Get Disability Quicker If You Meet a Mental Health Listing

Social Security's Listing of Impairments (also called the "Blue Book" as a nod to the color of the listing manual) outlines selected, severe medical conditions. If a claimant's medical record shows certain evidence for one of these conditions, their claim will result in an automatic approval of benefits. The Blue Book contains numerous mental health conditions such as:

Getting disability benefits by meeting a mental health listing is very challenging. Having an attorney who's familiar with the requirements of the listings and whether you might meet them can help the SSA approve your claim faster.

Your Lawyer Can Spot Areas in Your Claim That Need Work

Few claimants who apply for disability based on mental disorders have a perfect medical record. Symptoms of mental illness can prevent people from following up with treatment, or cause them to rely on drugs and alcohol to an unhealthy degree.

If you have gaps in medical treatment or a history of substance abuse, your attorney can help put these "bad facts" into context for the SSA so that the agency doesn't use them to deny your claim.

Your Lawyer Can Get a Medical Source Statement From Your Doctors

Because of the subjective nature of mental health illnesses, claimants often have difficulty proving that their anxiety, depression, or other mental condition is serious enough to prevent them from working. Having a medical opinion from a regularly treating doctor, counselor, or therapist can be very valuable in letting Social Security know how severely your mental illness limits your ability to function.

Your attorney can help you decide which doctors' opinions would be most useful to your disability claim and can enlist the doctors' cooperation in writing a helpful medical source statement.

Your Lawyer Can Advocate for You Before, During, and After a Disability Hearing

Probably the most important role of your attorney will be preparing you for your disability hearing. (Most claims aren't approved at the first or second stages of the disability determination process, so odds are you'll eventually have a hearing.)

Your lawyer can submit a prehearing brief to the administrative law judge (ALJ) who will be conducting your hearing. The prehearing brief can summarize the strongest parts of your disability claim for mental illness and help persuade the ALJ to award you benefits.

At the hearing, your lawyer can ask you questions about your activities of daily living (ADLs) so that the judge can see how symptoms from your mental illness restrict your ability to function. Your attorney will also be prepared to ask questions of the vocational expert (VE) about how your mental limitations affect your ability to work. These questions might include:

  • How well can you follow simple directions?
  • Do you need extra supervision or time to complete tasks?
  • Can you react appropriately to normal workplace stresses?
  • How well can you get along with your coworkers and the general public?
  • Would you have to take too much time off or be absent too frequently?

After your hearing, your attorney can submit any outstanding documentation that the ALJ has requested and follow up on communications from Social Security. If you're awarded benefits, your lawyer can help you choose a representative payee (if needed). If you received an unfavorable decision, your lawyer can request review of the decision by the Appeals Council.

Getting a Mental Health Disability Lawyer to Help

Mental health illnesses can pose a special set of challenges with regard to legal representation, and some attorneys are more sensitive to these needs. When choosing a Social Security disability attorney or advocate, you might want to ask your potential representative how they generally work with claimants with mental health issues.

For example, lawyers have a responsibility to maintain contact with their clients, but somebody with anxiety might avoid answering phone calls or responding to emails. That person probably wouldn't work well with an attorney aggressively threatening to drop them because they're not communicating promptly. A more understanding lawyer can help strike a balance between professional duties and the needs of their clients.

Updated October 31, 2022

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