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Mental Disorders and Social Security Disability

By October 2, 2020November 8th, 20238 min read

Inarguably, strides in public health have improved the quality of life across the globe. Improved sanitation, vaccinations, and better traffic safety are just some of the ways a focus on public health has made a difference in developing and established countries alike. Seeing public health strictly in terms of physical wellbeing misses the point. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely an absence of disease or infirmity.” There is comparatively little focus on curbing the plight of mental health, yet doing so could have a significant effect on human life. If you suffer from a debilitating condition that is a result of a mental illness, you may qualify for benefits like Social Security Disability. 

Spotlight on Mental Health

WHO estimates that approximately 14 percent of all diseases worldwide can be attributed to neurological, mental, or substance abuse disorders. About 17 percent of the adult population will experience a major depressive disorder in their lifetime, and about 29 percent will have an anxiety disorder. Unlike other diseases, depression and anxiety usually have earlier onset dates, so they are conditions that can be treated earlier than chronic heart disease or diabetes.

Also, suicide rates, directly attributable to mental health, continue to rise. Over 800,000 suicides occur worldwide every year. In the United States, more people die from suicide than traffic accidents.

Mental Disorders and Social Security Disability

Mental and psychological disabilities can qualify for Social Security Disability benefits, covering daily living expenses, medical bills and other financial obligations. The Social Security Administration evaluates mental health disability criteria somewhat differently than it does physical disabilities. When deciding whether to accept a mental health claimant’s application for disability benefits, there are a few specific elements that Social Security is looking for. 

What Mental Disorders Qualify for Disability?

The Social Security Administration has an official listing of impairments in what’s called the “Blue Book.” In the Blue Book, SSA lists physical and mental conditions it deems inherently disabling. If you meet the “listings” for one or more of these mental disabilities, you will be awarded SSD benefits for your mental disability.

There are several types of mental health disabilities. Social Security classifies mental disabilities in the following categories: 

  • Organic disorders (Alzheimer’s and dementia)
  • Anxiety-related disorders (panic attacks and abnormal fears)
  • Autistic/pervasive developmental disorders
  • Mental retardation (learning disorders)
  • Affective disorders (bipolar disorder and depression)
  • Substance addiction disorders
  • Somatoform disorders (illness or injuries have no discernible cause)
  • Personality disorders (obsessive-compulsive and passive-aggressive disorders)
  • Psychotic disorders (paranoia and schizophrenia)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Eating disorders 

Each one of these classifications has its own specific set of requirements. The categories listed above do not present an exhaustive list of mental health conditions eligible for Social Security Disability. If your mental disability does not meet one of the listings, you can still qualify to receive Disability benefits if you can prove that your mental disorder keeps you from performing gainful work.

How to Prove Mental Disability

In order to qualify for Disability benefits, you must first have a condition diagnosed by a doctor, usually a psychiatrist or psychologist, and you need to meet the three standard disability criteria: 

  1. Your disorder prevents you from doing the work you did up until the time of your disability,
  2. Your disorder makes it unreasonable for you to be trained for other work available at the time of your disability, and
  3. Your disorder is expected to be long-term or last for at least one year.

Unfortunately for mental disability sufferers, the diagnoses of mental disorders tend to be far more subjective than diagnoses of physical disabilities. It can be more difficult and time-consuming to prove to Social Security that your condition renders you completely disabled and unable to work. An experienced SSD attorney can help you make sure that you receive the benefits you deserve. 

Applying for SSDI with a Mental Disability

As part of your mental disability application for benefits, you will have to provide information regarding your Mental Residual Functional Capacity (MRFC) to show that you are incapable of performing simple, unskilled work. SSA will review any medical records and potentially the opinions of employers or friends submitted on your behalf to determine your mental capacity. Social Security will also use the Psychiatric Review Technique Form (PRTF) for every mental disability claimant.

Social Security will, of course, evaluate the presence of a mental condition, but it will also evaluate how your ability to perform daily tasks, such as shopping, paying bills, cooking, and taking care of personal hygiene, is affected by the disability. You will likely also need to submit an activity of daily living (ADL) questionnaire to explain how your mental health disability affects your daily life. Social Security will also look at your social functioning as a result of your disability.

When it comes to deciding which medical records to send to Social Security, be sure to include those from any counselors, therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists or social workers. In addition, provide records from any hospitalizations or emergency room visits that were a result of your condition as well as any pharmacy records. If you do not have sufficient medical records to prove your disability, Social Security may send you in for a psychological evaluation.

Approval for Social Security Disability with a Mental Disorder

A claims examiner will review your application and any supporting documents as part of your mental status examination and render a decision. First, the claims examiner will look to see if you meet one of the Blue Book listings. If not, he or she will look at your symptoms to determine your mental residual functional capacity (MRFC). If the examiner determines that you do not have the MRFC to work on a sustained and regular basis, your claim will be approved. 

During your mental status examination, the claims examiner will look closely to determine the following:

  1. Your ability to follow directions and control behavior;
  2. Your ability to get along with others;
  3. Your ability to hande stress;
  4. Your ability to understand and remember information;
  5. Your ability to concentrate, complete tasks, and get work done in an appropriate amount of time; and
  6. Your ability to adapt to changes.

If you are able to prove your mental disability, are awarded Social Security benefits, and have limited income, you may also be entitled to an Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) that depends on your income and the number of children who are dependent on you. Unlike a deduction, the EITC reduces the amount of taxes you will have to pay.

Disability Denial for a Mental Disorder

Approximately two-thirds of all initial Disability applications are denied. If you receive a denial letter from SSA, you can either drop your claim or go on to appeal it. At this point, you’ll have an opportunity to make your case directly to an administrative law judge (ALJ) who is more knowledgeable about mental health disabilities than the claims examiners. If he or she wishes, the ALJ can interview your doctors before making a decision.

Should you decide to appeal the decision, it’s a good idea to hire an attorney to represent you if you do not have one already. It is crucial that you present yourself accurately and thoroughly at this stage, and an attorney can go a long way in assisting you. He or she will be familiar with SSA’s disability criteria for your specific mental health disability and will ensure your forms are completed in a way that makes your disability—and how it affects you—clear. Because the initial denial rate is so high, especially when it comes to mental health disability claims, having an attorney can boost your chances of a favorable decision.