Getting Social Security Disability Benefits for Depression or Bipolar Disorder

Depression is a common complaint made by individuals trying to obtain Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits. Depression can cause symptoms of poor concentration, low energy, problems sleeping, and suicidal thoughts. If you have bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic depression), you may have depression mixed with periods of manic behavior with rapid speech.

To receive disability benefits, you will need to show proof of more than just a diagnosis of depression or bipolar disorder. You will need to present evidence that your depression or bipolar disorder is so severe that you are unable to work or function well. According to Social Security statistics, about two-thirds of applicants who apply for disability on the basis of major clinical depression or bipolar disorder end up getting approved (many only after having to request an appeal hearing).

Following is a list of important issues the Social Security Administration (SSA) will consider when evaluating your claim, and tips for how you can increase your chances of obtaining benefits.

Length and Levels of Depression

Your depression or bipolar disorder must have lasted or be expected to last for at least a year, and must be at a level at which you would be unable to perform a job on a consistent and regular basis. The SSA does not require that you be depressed every day of the month, but you must show your depressive symptoms occur frequently enough to prevent you from working.

Quite often, your medical treatment records for a particular visit will say that you are “feeling better” or that your depression has “improved." The SSA might use these records as a reason to deny you disability benefits. If your medical records include such notes, you can explain at a hearing before an administrative law judge whether you have good days and bad days with your disorder, and how often each occurs.

Meeting a Disability Listing for Depression or Bipolar Disorder

The Social Security Administration will automatically grant disability benefits for depression or bipolar disorder if you can show you have the symptoms and limitations listed in its official disability listing for depression or bipolar disorder, which was updated significantly in 2017. The SSA will consider treatment notes from your doctor or psychologist, mental status evaluations, psychological testing, and any reports of hospitalizations.

Symptoms. To qualify for either disability benefits on the basis of depression, you must show you have at least five of the following symptoms:

  • depressed mood
  • decreased interest in almost all activities
  • poor appetite or overeating resulting in a change in weight
  • insomnia or oversleeping
  • difficulty concentrating or thinking
  • feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • thoughts of death or suicide, and/or
  • a slowing of physical movement and reactions.

To qualify on the basis of bipolar disorder, you must have at least three of the following symptoms:

  • unnaturally fast, frenzied speech
  • quickly changing ideas and thought patterns
  • inflated self-esteem (usually with false beliefs)
  • decreased need for sleep
  • distractibility
  • involvement in risky activities with painful consequences that are not recognized, and/or
  • increase in physical agitation (such as pacing or restless busyness) or in in goal-directed activity (such as taking on new projects).

Limitations. For either disorder, you must show that you also have a loss of abilities, either an extreme limitation in one of the following areas or a "marked” (severe) limitation in two or more of the following areas:

  • adapting to change or managing oneself (controlling behavior, having practical personal skills like paying bills, shopping, and practicing good hygiene)
  • concentrating on and finishing tasks
  • interacting with others using use socially appropriate behaviors, and/or
  • understanding, remembering, or using information (the ability to understand instructions and learn and remember new things).

Alternately, if you can't show that you currently have this loss of abilities because you have been living in a highly structured or protected situation or undergoing intense therapy, you may be able to qualify for benefits if you can show that you have minimal capacity to adapt to changes in your environment or demands that are not already part of your daily life.

Consideration of Your Residual Functional Capacity

If the SSA says you don't meet the disability listing, the SSA will consider what you can do. It does this by writing up your mental residual functional capacity (MRFC). An MRFC is a description of what tasks you can do in a work setting; it explains your communication skills, your ability to relate to others, your ability to speak to the public, and whether you can be reliable in showing up to work.

For instance, say you have bipolar disorder and there is evidence in your medical records that you have moderate impairment in your social functioning caused by mood swings and you have a moderate level of difficulty with concentration. Your RFC might look like the following: you have no limitations in walking/standing/sitting, you are unable to work with the public, and you are limited to simple 1-2 step instructions. This RFC would prevent you from working in many occupations, but you still would not be found disabled since there are simple unskilled jobs that do not require working with the public. Read more about how the SSA makes this decision in our article on how the SSA evaluates an RFC for disability.

Tips on Getting Disability for Depression or Bipolar Disorder

Here are some things to keep in mind before you apply and while you are waiting for a decision.

Medical Opinions About Your Depression or Bipolar Disorder

You will need a statement from your treating doctor or a psychologist regarding the severity of your depression. For example, your doctor might give an opinion that you would miss several days of work each month due to your depression. Make sure the doctor provides an explanation for this opinion.

Continue to see your doctor or therapist during the waiting process for benefits so that you can amass a long treatment history in your medical records. The SSA cannot easily deny the opinion of a therapist who has consistently found you to have a severe mental disorder and who has clinical signs supporting this opinion. If you cannot afford to see a doctor or therapist on a regular basis, the SSA may send you to a consultative examination with a psychologist. For more information, see Nolo's article on getting a doctor's report for disability.

The Importance of Getting Treatment for Depression

The SSA will review your medical records to determine if you have been prescribed any medication for your depression or bipolar disorder and whether this medication effectively controls your symptoms. If you have never been given medication, the SSA might consider your condition to be mild and not disabling.

In addition, if your doctor has recommended therapy or medication for your condition and you chose not to follow the doctor’s advice, the SSA might find you in "noncompliance." You can be denied disability benefits for not complying with your doctor's treatment recommendations. However, a good reason for not following a doctor’s recommendation is if you are financially unable to pay for therapy sessions. For more information, see Nolo's article on being denied benefits for failing to follow treatment.

Drugs and Alcohol and Depression

If you have been diagnosed with drug or alcohol dependency, then you have a major roadblock to obtaining disability benefits for depression or bipolar disorder. An examining psychologist might assume that your symptoms result from drug usage and not from your underlying condition. It is your burden to show the SSA that you would be disabled by your depression bipolar disorder regardless of your use of drugs or alcohol. In these situations, it is helpful to have a period of sobriety in your medical records during which you still have been diagnosed with severe depression or bipolar disorder. Also, you can try to request a statement from your doctor stating that drugs or alcohol are not the cause of your mental condition and that stopping use would not make your condition improve. For more information, read Nolo's article on how drugs and alcohol can keep you from getting disability.

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