If you are filing for Social Security disability (SSD) or SSI benefits based on a condition that involves depression, you should take every step possible to back up your claim with solid medical evidence. This is true whether you are listing depression as a primary disabling factor or as a secondary symptom of a broader ailment (for example, chronic fatigue syndrome or chronic back pain).
Many individuals who list depression on a disability application have not recently been treated for their condition, and some have no record of ever receiving treatment. Without recent medical records from a qualified mental health provider (a psychiatrist or psychologist) to confirm an ongoing state of clinical depression, the disability claims examiner or administrative law judge (ALJ) attempting to evaluate your claim will have no choice but to order a consultative exam (CE) to determine your current mental state.
In most cases of depression, Social Security will pay for and send you to a mental consultative exam with a psychologist or psychiatrist who will provide a current, full psychiatric and psychological profile of the claimant. However, if you have listed depression on your disability application but you have no prior history of treatment for your condition, you will likely be sent to a mental status exam, which is generally not as in depth as a full psychological profile. The mental status exam will simply supply the claims examiner or judge with an overview of your current mental state, including observations about demeanor, speech, memory, alertness, ability to concentrate, and ability to adequately interpret simple concepts.
It is rare that a mental status exam will provide a claimant with enough medical evidence to qualify for disability benefits. Yet, as with all exams scheduled by Social Security, you have no choice but to participate. Without recent medical evidence your case cannot move forward, and refusing an exam can in itself be grounds for dismissal of your claim.
However, a mental consultative exam can be helpful to your case if you have a documented history of treatment for depression and your consultative exam confirms what your medical records already indicate.
Because it is unlikely that a mental consultative exam will provide enough evidence to support a diagnosis of clinical, disabling depression, if you plan to file for disability based on depression, you should be sure to see a mental health professional, preferably a psychiatrist, who will provide a medical diagnosis and record of ongoing, monthly treatment to support your claim.
Note that licensed psychologists, even those who are Ph.D. holders, are not physicians, while psychiatrists are physicians. While both are "acceptable medical sources" to Social Security, some ALJs (administrative law judges) give more weight and deference to the opinions of psychiatrists than records from other mental health professionals. So if you are choosing which provider to see, you may want to keep this in mind. In addition, psychiatrists can prescribe medication, and your being on medication to treat clinical depression lends weight to your claim. And it is critical to take all medications for depression as prescribed by your physician, since failing to do so can result in a denial of disability benefits.
Learn more about mental consultative exams.