Depression and Disability

Social Security Disability Benefits for Depression

To qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and/or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for depression, the claimant must either:

  1. meet certain specific disability requirements found in Social Security’s impairment listing manual (called the “Blue Book”), or
  2. be approved with a medical-vocational allowance based on the severity of the depression and a combination of other factors (such as the claimants age, education background, work history and additional disabling conditions.

This article discusses Social Security’s rules and regulations about when adults can qualify for disability with depression. To rules for childhood depression are different and outside the scope of this article.

Disability Listing for Depression

Social Security has a list of common, serious illnesses that qualify for disability if they meet the specific requirements or criteria. This list is called the Listing of Impairments and is contained in the SSA’s “Blue Book”. The purpose of the List is to create uniformity in the evaluation of certain medical conditions and to grant disability quickly for the more severe impairments.

Depression is covered by impairment listing 12.04, Affective Disorders. To qualify for SSDI or SSI disability benefits on the basis of depression, you must provide medically documented evidence of your severe depression by having at least four of the following symptoms:

  • pervasive loss of interest in almost all activities (anhedonia); or
  • poor appetite with weight loss or overeating with weight gain; or
  • sleeping problems such as insomnia or oversleeping; or
  • psychomotor agitation (a series of unintentional and purposeless motions that stem from mental tension and anxiety) or psychomotor retardation (slowing-down of thought and a reduction of physical movements); or
  • decreased energy; or
  • feelings of guilt or worthlessness; or
  • difficulty concentrating or thinking; or
  • thoughts of suicide; or
  • hallucinations, delusions, or paranoid thinking.

In addition, to “meet the Listing” for depression Social Security requires that your symptoms of depression cause you serious difficulty in:

  • activities of daily living (ADLs)
  • social functioning
  • focusing, or
  • repeated, extended periods of worsening symptoms (episodes of decompensation).

For example, an individual who:

  • has been diagnosed with depression by a mental health professional (such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or mental health counselor) and
  • doesn’t get along well with others, can’t concentrate on simple tasks, and has trouble with hygiene

may be able to qualify under the disability listing for depression.

In the alternative, if you have experienced frequent episodes of depression for at least two years, you may qualify for disability even if your depression has improved with antidepressant medications, counseling and/or heavy social support, but your recovery is still tentative and you could experience a setback at any time if you were to go back to work or change your routine.

For proper documentation of your condition, you should regularly see a mental health counselor, psychiatrist or psychologist. He or she should be recording your symptoms and the severity of your condition. If your mental health professional is not adequately documenting your depression condition, you may want to track your condition yourself using a self-rated depression scale.

Qualifying For Disability Outside of the Depression Listing

Meeting the requirements of a Listing of Impairment, as detailed above, is not the only way to be approved for disability. Applicants can, in the alternative, be approved by being granted a “medical-vocational allowance.” In fact, this is how most disability claims for depression are approved.

To determine whether you should be approved disability benefits with a medical-vocational allowance, Social Security will consider how your depression and resulting limitations affect your ability to do work activity. Even simple, unskilled work requires you to:

  • understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions,
  • make simple work-related decisions
  • respond appropriately to supervision and to co workers, and
  • handle changes in routine.

If depression is the only impairment you identified in your application for disability benefits, being approved for disability will be a long shot unless you have severe, disabling depression that is well-documented in your medical records. If you also have another mental impairment or a physical impairment in addition to your depression, you have a better chance of being approved for benefits. For more information degrees of severity of mental health conditions, see our article on how moderate depression impacts a disability decision.

If Social Security determines that the limitations due to your mental impairment make it impossible for you to perform even simple, unskilled work, you will win disability benefits. Or, if Social Security determines you have the mental capability to perform unskilled work, but you have a physical impairment that limits you do sedentary work (a job that primarily involves sitting instead of standing and walking), you could also win disability benefits if you are not able or qualified to do any sedentary jobs. To better understand how Social Security makes these determinations, learn more about winning Social Security Disability benefits based on a medical-vocational allowance for a mental disorder.

Appealing a Denial of Benefits for Depression

If you have been denied benefits and feel your case is strong enough to win an appeal, consider contacting an experienced disability lawyer. Applicants who go to an appeal hearing before an Administrative Law Judge represented by a lawyer have better approval rates than applicants who represent themselves. Mr. Ortiz is a Board Certified Social Security Attorney and offers free case evaluations. Contact him at (850) 308-7833 today.