Can You Get Social Security Disability for Depression?

Social Security has a long list of criteria you must fulfill to qualify for disability benefits for depression.

Updated by , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Depression can be so disruptive to a person's life that it interferes with everyday life and makes it impossible to work. If your depression is so severe, even with medication, that you can't work any type of job, you might qualify for disability benefits.

To get Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), your condition will have to be well documented as well as severely debilitating—it must affect your ability to:

  • function socially
  • understand and remember information
  • concentrate, or
  • manage the tasks of daily living.

And you must have been diagnosed with depression that is persistent (meaning it's lasted at least one year or is expected to last at least one year). Your depression can be considered persistent even if you're not continuously depressed (that is, you have depressive episodes that come and go).

When Does Social Security Consider Depression as a Disability?

To qualify for disability benefits for depression, your condition must:

  • be severe enough to meet the requirements of Social Security's Blue Book impairment listing on depressive disorders (listing 12.04), or
  • interfere with your functioning to such an extent that the Social Security Administration (SSA) agrees that there are no jobs you can do.

Qualifying for Disability Benefits Based on Social Security's Depression Listing

To qualify under the SSA's official listing for depression, your depression must be characterized by at least five of the following:

  • depressed mood
  • decreased energy
  • difficulty concentrating or thinking
  • loss of interest in most activities
  • a slowing of physical movement or speech, or increased physical agitation, like pacing
  • poor appetite or overeating with weight gain or loss
  • insomnia or oversleeping
  • feelings of worthlessness or guilt, or
  • suicidal thoughts.

The SSA also requires that your depression cause extreme limitations in at least one (or a very serious limitation in at least two) of the following areas:

  • understanding and remembering instructions and learning new things
  • interacting with others appropriately
  • concentrating and completing tasks, or
  • managing yourself (handling change, being able to cook, shop, and pay bills, and practicing good hygiene).

Even if you don't meet the above requirements, you might still be able to qualify for disability benefits—if your depression has improved with medication, therapy, and/or psychosocial support, but your recovery is fragile, and you could experience a setback if you go back to work. Specifically, to qualify under this alternative:

  • Your depression must be medically documented as having lasted at least two years, and
  • You must have minimal capacity to adjust to changes in your environment or increases in mental demands.

Qualifying for Disability Based on Reduced Abilities Due to Depression

If you don't qualify under the SSA's requirements for major depression, above, you might still be able to get disability benefits. The SSA will consider your depression symptoms and how much they impair your ability to do the usual activities of daily living and if there's any kind of work you can be expected to do.

The SSA will give you a rating of the type of work it thinks you can do:

  • skilled work
  • semi-skilled work, or
  • unskilled work.

This is called your residual functional capacity (RFC), and in the case of depression, it's called a mental RFC rather than a physical RFC.

If the SSA finds that you can do at least unskilled work—which is likely if you didn't meet the official listing above—you won't get disability benefits. But if the SSA finds that you can't perform even unskilled work (because, for instance, your concentration is markedly limited or you can't sustain an ordinary routine), the SSA might grant you benefits under a "medical-vocational allowance."

And if you have any type of physical impairment in addition to depression, your chance of qualifying for benefits can change. For example, let's say you get a mental RFC for unskilled work and a physical RFC for sedentary work. There might be very few jobs you can do in this category, and you might be able to qualify for benefits under a medical-vocational allowance.

Medical Evidence Required for Disability Based on Depression

Your treating doctor will need to submit a comprehensive psychiatric report and a well-documented psychiatric medical record to the SSA that shows the history of your depression. Your psychiatric record should include:

  • all treatments you tried, including the types of medication and therapy
  • how effective each treatment or medication was (or wasn't), and
  • the side effects of each treatment.

Your doctor should also include detailed examples of how your depression affects your daily activities and your ability to hold a job.

Starting a Disability Claim for Depression

You can apply for Social Security disability benefits (both SSDI and SSI) online at your convenience. You can access the online application from anywhere at any time and pause the application process as much as you need to. Or you can call the SSA at 800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778) to set up an appointment to fill out an application for disability benefits.

When you fill out your application, include a detailed description of how your depression affects:

  • your daily life and the activities you used to do
  • your social functioning and how often you get out of the house
  • your ability to concentrate and complete tasks quickly and follow directions, and
  • how often you have episodes of worsening symptoms.

If you have both depression and a physical impairment that makes it impossible for you to work (or if you're worried that your depression doesn't meet the SSA's listing), consider hiring a disability lawyer to help you file your Social Security claim. And if your initial claim gets denied, an attorney can help you file an appeal with the SSA.

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