Disability Benefits for Mental Health Issues

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Social Security disability benefits are available to individuals who suffer long-term disabilities, including physical and mental health impairments. However, it is often more difficult to obtain benefits based on a mental health impairment. Being aware of this challenge can help claimants have a more realistic idea of the process ahead.

Mental Health Claims

Part of the difficulty of obtaining benefits for mental health issues is because the agents that represent the Social Security Administration are not licensed psychiatrists. It is often more difficult for them to discern how a particular mental health impairment will affect a person’s ability to work. Additionally, symptoms may be harder to assess. It may be difficulty to objectively measure the severity of the condition. Many mental health issues are cyclical in nature and are not easily cured. A person may appear better on any given day, but this may simply signify that symptoms have dissipated for the moment but will likely resurface. Many such impairments are lifelong conditions that a person may be able to better manage but never eradicate.

Listing of Impairments

The Social Security Administration contains a separate Listing of Impairments for mental health issues. One way to be approved for Social Security disability benefits is for the claimant to show that he or she meets or equals one of the official listings. This set of impairments is considered by the Social Security Administration as inherently disabling impairments. If a person meets or equals one of the listings, the Social Security Administration awards benefits without any further analysis of how the condition affects the claimant’s ability to work. The claimant must be diagnosed with the condition and meet or equal the criteria associated with the severity and limitations cited in the listings. A disability examiner determines if a claimant’s symptoms meet the criteria associated with the listed impairment. Some mental health impairments in the listings include:

• Autism
• Anxiety
• Depression
• Mental retardation
• Personality disorders
• Schizophrenia
• Bipolar disorder
• Substance abuse disorders
• Post traumatic stress disorder


Depression is characterized by symptoms of sadness, loss of energy and irritability. In order for a claimant to be approved for Social Security disability benefits for depression, he or she must have symptoms that match the requisite level of severity included in the listings. This means that he or she must meet the criteria that indicates that he or she cannot perform job duties, that his or her presence at work would pose a danger to the claimant or others around him or her, and/or the claimant must have a documented history of chronic affective disorder that has lasted a minimum of two years and caused a major inability for the claimant to perform daily living activities.

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is sometimes mistaken for depression because it manifests in some of the same symptoms. However, it also contains its own unique symptoms, such as extreme elation and increased impulsive activity. It is an impairment that brings about the extremes in emotions from utter sadness to pure joy. Sometimes the patient receives treatment for depression but does not recognize the corresponding emotions on the other side of the spectrum.

To be approved for benefits for bipolar disorder, the claimant must have severe episodes of depression as well as mania. A licensed health professional must be able to qualify the number of specific episodes and behaviors. If the claimant’s behavior does not meet this criteria, he or she must show that he or she has experienced recurrent and lengthy episodes of bipolar disorder that is worsening, along with serious problems related to social functioning, focusing or performing activities of daily life.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder commonly occurs after someone has gone through a traumatic event and lack the ability to emotionally process the event. Some common causes of PTSD include warfare, sexual assault, automotive accidents, natural disasters or physical abuse. Individuals who have PTSD often experience flashbacks and recurring nightmares. They may also block out memories surrounding the traumatic event, experience jumpiness, have outbursts of anger, feel numb and feel distant from others. Many individuals who suffer PTSD also suffer from depression.

Mental RFCs

If the claimant cannot show that he or she meets or equals one of the listing, the claimant’s mental residual functional capacity is evaluated. If the claimant is assessed as having intellectual, functional or social limitations, he or she may still be eligible for Social Security disability benefits.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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