Getting Disability Benefits for a Mental Illness

There are many mental impairments that could qualify for Social Security Disability, but proving your case can be challenging.

People suffering from mental illness are just as eligible for Social Security disability benefits as people with physical medical conditions. Getting disability benefits, however, can be more difficult for mental illness. One problem is that limitations from a mental illness can be more difficult to prove, and often the person with the mental illness may know that they cannot work, but they may not understand why.

What Does Social Security Look For?

Social Security looks at four areas of functioning in determining an applicant's eligibility for benefits:

  • Daily living – Can you carry out such things as cooking, cleaning, personal care, and laundry?
  • Social functioning – Do you know what to say and when it is appropriate to say it and can you get along with others?
  • Concentration – Can you complete important tasks in a timely manner?
  • Episodes of deterioration/decompensation – Are there periods of time (that last at least two weeks) when your symptoms are significantly worse, several times per year?

Depending on the type of disorder, Social Security may require that you have severe difficulty functioning in at least two of these areas.

(For a more thorough understanding of how mental impairment claims are determined, please see Disability Determination for Mental Conditions.)

Gathering Information on Your Disability

Your doctor, especially one that has been treating you for some time, is very important to your disability case. It's best if you have a psychiatrist or psychologist, because Social Security likes to see opinions from doctors who specialize in your type of illness. Also, these professionals will be able to give a prognosis about how long your mental illness is likely to last. Ask your doctor to fill out a mental functional capacity assessment about you that includes answers to these questions:

  • Can you follow simple directions?
  • Can you get work done in a reasonable amount of time?
  • Can you work without close supervision?
  • Can you get along with others in the workplace?
  • Can you interact appropriately with the public?
  • Can you keep your appearance socially acceptable?
  • Can you show up to work regularly and on time?
  • Can you tolerate a normal amount of stress?

Because mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety rely largely on your own subjective reports of your emotions, it is important for others to be involved in your application for disability benefits. Friends, family members, and former employers will be an excellent source of letters and reports about you. For example a former employer could supply you with a statement that you had to be let go because things that you did or said didn’t fit the workplace. The observations of family and close friends, especially if they spend time caring for you or helping you with tasks, can make a difference when you are ready to file your claim.

Application Process

The first step in the Social Security disability process is to file an application with Social Security, either online or by calling a local office to set up an appointment.  Family members or guardians may be able to help you with this. Once you have completed the initial application form, a Social Security representative may conduct an in-depth interview either in person or over the phone and there will be several more forms to fill out, including forms about your work history and your activities of daily living. Once this procedure is complete, it will take between three and six months to receive a determination. Sometimes checking on the status of your claim helps keep it moving along.

If your medical records are insuffucient, you may be required to attend a mental exam.

Final Determination

It is not unlikely that your disability application will be rejected the first time. Be ready to ask for a reconsideration (the first level of appeal in most states) and ultimately to request a hearing to appeal the decision. Consider hiring a disability lawyer to represent you at the hearing, especially if you don't have any physical impairments in addition to your mental illness. Your chances of winning your claim go up significantly when you are represented by a lawyer.

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