Veterans may suffer from depression as a result of a disabling physical injury, an incident that occurred in service, or as a result of another mental condition. Veterans are eligible for service-connected disability compensation for depression.
How the VA Classifies Depression
In the VA Schedule of Ratings Disabilities depression is listed under the category “Mood Disorders.” Two depression diagnoses are listed, dysthymic disorder and major depressive disorder.
A diagnosis of major depressive disorder requires at least two major episodes of depression lasting at least two weeks, as well as symptoms afterwards that significantly impair your daily functioning. These symptoms include:
- a lack of interest in most of your activities
- feeling depressed most of the day
- inability to sleep or sleeping excessively
- feeling very fatigued or low energy, and/or
- thinking frequently about death.
Dysthymic disorder is generally less severe but more long-term than major depressive disorder. It requires feeling depressed for two years or more for most of the time, while having symptoms that significantly interference with functioning, such as low self-esteem, feeling hopeless, and difficulty concentrating and making decisions.
Establishing Direct Service Connection for Depression
To be eligible for the disability compensation program, the veteran needs to show that the depression is connected to his or hr military service. The following is required to prove a direct service connection:
- a current diagnosis of depression (as described above)
- evidence of an incident in service that caused the depression, and
- medical evidence of a link (causation) between the current depression diagnosis and the incident in service.
Veterans With Depression Prior to Service
In some cases, a veteran may have suffered from depression prior to entering service and events in service may have caused the depression to worsen. In these cases, it may be possible to obtain disability benefits on the theory of "aggravated service connection" if an incident during active duty made the disorder worse.
Aggravated service connection for a pre-existing diagnosis of depression requires:
- a current diagnosis of depression by a VA doctor, psychiatrist, or psychologist
- evidence of an incident in service that worsened the depression, and
- medical evidence of a link between the worsening of the depression and the incident in service.
In addition, the veteran will have to prove that the depression was a pre-existing condition. The easiest way to do this is when the depression is noted on the veteran’s entrance medical exam. If it is not, the veteran will have to produce medical evidence of a pre-service diagnosis of depression.
The fact alone that the depression worsened during military service will not be enough. A medical opinion is needed from the veteran's psychiatrist or psychologist stating that the in-service incident was responsible for the worsening of the depression. Otherwise, the VA may conclude that the increase in depression symptoms was simply due to the natural progression of depression and will deny benefits.
Depression Due to a Physical Service-Connected Condition
It is not unusual for a veteran to develop depression as the result of a physical condition. When a veteran has a physical disability resulting from service that has been found to be service-connected, it is possible to apply for an increase in disability compensation for the depression. This can be done under the theory of "secondary service connection."
Establishing secondary service connection for depression requires:
- a current diagnosis of depression
- a service-connected physical disability, and
- medical evidence of a link between depression and the service-connected physical disability
A doctor's opinion will normally be required to prove that the physical condition created the depression.
Depression Secondary to Another Mental Disorder
VA disability lawyers generally advise veterans not to seek secondary service connection for an additional mental disorder caused by a service-connected disorder, as this would likely lead to a reduced rating. The VA would probably respond by stating that since not all the symptoms are caused by the service-connected mental disorders, a lower rating is justified.
How the VA Rates Depression
The VA rates depression, along with all other mental disorders, according to a “General Rating Formula for Mental Disorders.” Depression is rated according to how much it impairs a veteran’s social and occupational ability. While depression symptoms are relevant to the particular diagnosis a veteran is given, they have no impact on the actual rating. The rating is based on the effects of the symptoms on a veteran’s ability to function, not on the symptoms themselves.
The available ratings for depression are 0%, 10%, 30%, 50%, 70%, or 100%. A 100% rating is warranted only where a veteran has absolutely no ability to function socially or at work. A 0% rating is assigned where, despite depression symptoms, a veteran’s ability to function is not actually impaired. A 0% rating is still helpful, however, as it entitles the veteran to VA benefits such as health care.
How to Apply for Disability Based on Depression
You can apply for disability online, by filling out the Application for Veterans Compensation and/or Pension, or by contacting your local VA office. For more information, see our article on applying for VA disability benefits.