Getting Social Security Disability Benefits for Depression or Bipolar Disorder

Social Security disability applications for depression or bipolar disorder are common, but approvals are not.

Depression is a commonly alleged mental condition for individuals trying to obtain Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits.

Depression can cause symptoms of poor concentration, suicidal thoughts, problems sleeping, and low energy. If you have bipolar disorder, you may also have 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 is so severe that you are unable to work. 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 of Depression

Your depression or mental disorder must last for at least 12 months or more, and must be at a level at which you would be unable to perform a job on a consistent and regular basis. Quite often, your medical treatment records for a particular visit can 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. In these cases, you will want to explain at a hearing before an administrative law judge whether you have good days and bad days with your depression, and how often each occurs. 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.

Doctor Opinions about Your Depression

You will likely 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. To strengthen this opinion, make sure the doctor provides an explanation for her opinion. The SSA will also want to see a mental status examination in the doctor’s treatment records.

If you have only seen a social worker or licensed therapist, be forewarned that the SSA is allowed to give less weight to the opinions of such medical providers. To deal with this issue, you should continue to see these therapists during the waiting process for benefits and amass a long treatment history of 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 his opinion. In addition, if you cannot afford to see a doctor on a regular basis, you should ask the SSA to send you to a consultative examination with a psychologist. For more information, see Nolo's article on getting a doctor's report for disability.

Treatment for Depression

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

In addition, if your doctor has recommended therapy or medication for your depression and you choose 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 a mental condition. An examining psychologist might assume that your symptoms result from drug usage and not from your underlying depression. It is your burden to show the SSA that you would be disabled by depression regardless of the 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 could request a statement from your doctor who can opine that drugs or alcohol are not the cause of your depression and that they do not contribute to it. For more information, read Nolo's article on how drugs and alcohol can keep you from getting disability.

Meeting a Disability Listing for a Mental Disorder

The Social Security Administration will automatically grant disability benefits for depression or bipolar disorder if you meet its official disability listing for Affective Disorders. The SSA will consider treatment notes from your doctor or psychologist, mental status evaluations, psychological testing, and any reports of hospitalizations. For example, to meet the listing for bipolar disorder, you would need to show medical evidence of manic and depressive symptoms that result in at least two of the following: a marked limitation in the ability to perform everyday tasks of living, a marked limitation in the ability to relate to others, or a marked limitation in your ability to focus and to maintain a regular work pace.

For example, the SSA would find that you have a marked limitation if you are unable to remember and follow simple instructions, you are unable to have even brief interactions with others, you cannot stay on task and are easily disrupted, or you cannot deal with routine changes in a work setting.

Consideration of the Your Residual Functional Capacity

When do you not meet an official disability listing, the SSA will consider what you can do, and how your condition limits you from doing various tasks required at a job. It does this by writing up your residual functional capacity (RFC). An RFC 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 sit, stand, and use your arms and hands, 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 a 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.

However, if your medical records contained evidence so that SSA found that you had a marked level of impairment in social functioning (your ability to work with the public, coworkers, or supervisors) or a marked level of impairment in your mental functioning (your concentration or memory), then you might be found disabled. Read more about how the SSA makes this decision in our article on how the SSA evaluates an RFC for disability.

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