If you find it hard to hold down a job because of a severe mental or emotional condition—such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, PTSD, or autism—you might be asking yourself: What are my chances of getting Social Security disability benefits? To help answer that question, we surveyed readers around the United States who recently went through the process of applying for SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) or SSI (Supplemental Security Income). Here’s what we learned from the experiences of readers who filed claims for mood or anxiety disorders.
Most people are aware of how common depression is in our society. But they may not realize how many people are so profoundly depressed that they experience severe limitations in various areas of their lives, including work. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 10.3 million adults in the U.S. had depressive episodes in one year (2016) that fit that description. In the same year, just over 2 million people were receiving SSDI or SSI benefits for mood disorders—14% of all beneficiaries. (In comparison, 6% of recipients had schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders, while 9% had intellectual disorder, or low IQ.)
So it may not be a surprise to learn that out of all the medical conditions that qualify for SSDI or SSI (known as “impairments”), mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder rank high among the primary impairments listed on applications. About one in ten readers (9%) listed a mood disorder, making it the second most common impairment (after back problems). When combined with anxiety disorders (including generalized anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder), these psychological conditions accounted for 16% of applicants in our survey. (Government data compiled in 2013 show a similar percentage of applicants with either mood or anxiety disorders.)
As anyone who has suffered from serious depression or anxiety knows, it can be very difficult to convince others—who’ve never experienced the crippling effects of these conditions—that you aren’t able simply to “get over it.” Unfortunately, the same is often true when it comes to convincing skeptical disability claims examiners and judges that your condition truly prevents you from working and is long-lasting.
This skepticism is reflected in our survey results: Less than four in ten (37%) readers with mood or anxiety disorders were approved for benefits at some point in the process. At the initial application stage, the outlook was particularly dim: More than eight in ten readers (82%) were denied (although government statistics indicate that a sizeable portion of those were “technical denials,” generally because the applicants didn’t meet the work-history and/or financial requirements for SSDI or SSI).
There are many reasons for this discouraging outlook. There are objective tests for some other types of mental impairments (like memory or cognitive ability tests for dementia). But in order to make a diagnosis of a mood or anxiety disorder, doctors and psychologists generally must rely on your subjective descriptions of the symptoms you’re experiencing. Moreover, the cyclical nature of mood disorders (which often involve periods of relative stability) can make it especially difficult to prove that you’re too disabled to work and that your condition is likely to last a year or more. (For more details on Social Security’s criteria for these conditions, see our in-depth articles on getting disability benefits for depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, and PTSD.)
If you’ve received an initial denial letter because you didn’t meet Social Security’s medical criteria, that’s no reason to give up. If you request a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ), the likelihood of receiving benefits goes up dramatically. Government statistics from 2007-2015 show that nearly six in ten applicants (59%) who listed mood or anxiety disorders as their primary impairment were approved after a hearing. (A cautionary note: Because this data covered a period during which hearing approval rates for all impairments declined significantly, current approval rates at hearings might be lower than the nine-year average.)
Several factors contribute to the better outlook at hearings. For one thing, it takes a long time to get to a hearing. While the wait can be frustrating, it can help you build stronger evidence. This is particularly critical with mood and anxiety disorders. If you can show that your mental condition has continued to be severe and to keep you from working, a judge is more likely to be convinced that you’re eligible for disability benefits, and that your condition isn't short-term.
Our survey points to another important reason for the higher approval rate at hearings: More applicants enlist the help of a lawyer at this stage in the process. Nearly three-quarters (71%) of all readers who went to a hearing were represented by an attorney, compared to 30% at the initial application stage. And applicants with lawyers had a much greater chance of winning disability benefits (more on that later).
Obviously, depression and anxiety aren’t the only kind of mental disability that can qualify for SSDI or SSI. More than a quarter (26%) of or readers applied for some kind of mental disability. In addition to mood and anxiety disorders, this larger category includes:
Applicants with many of these conditions have a higher likelihood of receiving SSDI or SSI benefits than people with mood or anxiety disorders. According to Social Security data, the hearing approval rates for common mental impairments range from 88% for intellectual disorders to 73% for neurocognitive disorders.
One of the most critical things you can do to increase your chances of receiving SSDI or SSI is to hire a disability lawyer. As our survey results showed, 55% of readers who had an attorney received benefits for their mental impairments, either at the application stage or after a hearing. That’s a significant improvement over the 36% who got benefits without a lawyer’s help.
Experienced disability attorneys understand Social Security’s complicated rules for mental disorders. A lawyer can work with your doctor or psychologist to provide helpful medical evidence, request Social Security to send you for I.Q. or memory testing, or, if Social Security sent you to a mental exam and the doctor's opinion hurts your case, your lawyer can work to cast doubt on the doctor's opinion. (Read more about how a lawyer can help with a mental or cognitive claim.)