Mental Illness and Social Security Disability
Yes, you are eligible for SSDI and SSI disability benefits for either physical or mental medical conditions (or a combination of both), but it is usually more difficult to collect disability for a mental disability than for a physical impairment. Why? Because you cannot prove a mental illness with an objective medical test like an X-Ray or MRI. Although a mental health expert like a psychologist or psychiatrist can diagnose mental illnesses, it may take several visits to the doctor to evaluate the symptoms of a mental condition and assess a diagnosis. Moreover, even if a diagnosis is established, it may take even more time to determine the severity of the condition as severity is difficult to measure objectively.
How the SSA Views Mental Disability Claims
Social Security Disability claims examiners are not licensed psychologists or psychiatrists, and they do not always understand the full scope of limitations caused by certain mental illnesses. For example, some disability examiners do not recognize the cycling nature of mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder (sometimes called by its older name of “manic depression”), and may assume a claimant is cured because he or she does not currently display certain symptoms. However, in reality those symptoms may have just dissipated for the moment, and are almost certain to return in the relative near future. To learn more, see Common Reasons Why Mental Disability Claims Are Denied Disability.
In addition, some disability examiners are biased against disability claims for mental illness.
Mental Impairment Listings
In evaluating a mental health condition, the disability examiner will first refer to Social Security’s official listing of impairments (often referred to as the Blue Book). The Listings in the Blue Book specifically identify medical conditions that the Social Security Administration recognizes as conditions that are inherently disabling. In other words, Social Security accepts that anyone who satisfies all the requirements of a listed condition would be unable to work (or engage in substantial gainful activity).
The disability examiner will review the medical evidence to determine whether a disability applicant’s symptoms meet the criteria of any mental condition listed in the Blue Book. Mental Listings in the Blue Book of impairments include:
- Mental retardation;
- Autistic disorders;
- Bipolar disorder, and
- Substance abuse disorders.
Each listing (except 12.05 and 12.09) consists of: (1) a statement describing the disorder and (2) two sets of criteria that must be satisfied for the listing: paragraph A criteria (a set of medical findings) and paragraph B criteria (a set of impairment-related functional limitations). There are additional functional criteria (paragraph C criteria) in listings 12.02, 12.03, 12.04, and 12.06.
Social Security will assess the paragraph B criteria before it applies the paragraph C criteria. Social Security will assess the paragraph C criteria only if it finds that the paragraph B criteria are not satisfied. Social Security will find that you have a listed impairment if the diagnostic description in the introductory paragraph and the criteria of both paragraphs A and B (or A and C, when appropriate) of the listed impairment are satisfied.
If your condition is not specifically listed in the blue book, or if your condition is not as severe as the Blue Book listing requires, you may still be eligible for disability. You must have been diagnosed with a mental condition that is preventing you from working, and you must demonstrate that your disability has lasted (or is likely to last) for a period of at least twelve months. If your mental residual functional capacity (RFC) shows you have intellectual, social, or functional limitations, you may be eligible for a medical-vocational allowance, depending on your mental limitations, age, education level, and job skills.