Veterans sometimes suffer from mental illness as a result of a disabling physical injury or an incident that occurred in service. Veterans are eligible for service-connected disability compensation for many, but not all, mental illnesses.
How the VA Evaluates Mental Illness
The VA evaluates mental illnesses under the VA Schedule of Ratings Disabilities, which follows the criteria set out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV). Categories of mental illness that are eligible for disability compensation include:
- psychotic disorders
- amnesia and cognitive disorders (mental diseases affecting the brain)
- anxiety (including post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias, panic disorder, and agoraphobia)
- dissociative disorders (disorders where you ‘lose time’ and may forget where you were or what you did; includes multiple personality disorder)
- somataform disorders (symptoms of physical illness without any actual diagnosis)
- mood disorders (see Nolo’s article on getting compensation for depression)
- adjustment disorders (being so stressed about life changes that you are self-destructive), and
- eating disorders (bulimia and anorexia).
If you suffer from more than one mental disorder but the symptoms from each illness are similar, you will receive one disability rating.
Mental Conditions That Cannot Be Service-Connected
The VA does not grant service-connected disability compensation for illnesses that are considered to be “genetic or developmental defects.” Mental retardation and personality disorders are considered genetic or developmental defects, and, therefore, you cannot get compensation for these illnesses. However, if a veteran with a diagnosed personality disorder enters military service and later develops post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he or she will not be barred from receiving benefits for PTSD on the basis of the underlying personality disorder.
Establishing Direct Service Connection for Mental Illness
Just like with other disabilities, you must prove your mental illness is connected to your military service in order to be eligible for disability compensation. To get compensation on the basis of direct service connection, you must have:
- a current mental illness diagnosis
- evidence of an accident or event on active duty that created the mental illness, and
- medical evidence connecting your current mental illness diagnosis with the incident in service.
Veterans With Mental Illness Prior to Service
In some cases, you may have had a mental illness before going into the service and your experiences on active duty may have made your condition worse. If this is the case you may be able to get compensation on the basis of "aggravated service connection."
To prove an aggravated service connection, you must have:
- a current mental illness diagnosis from a VA doctor, psychiatrist, or psychologist
- evidence of an occurrence in service that made your mental illness worse, and
- medical evidence of a connection between your mental illness getting worse and the event that happened in service.
You will also be required to prove that you had your mental illness before going into the military. If your mental illness was noted during your enlistment exam, that will satisfy this requirement. If not, you will have to provide medical records showing a pre-service diagnosis of your condition. Also, you can't simply show that your symptoms got worse due to active duty. A VA doctor, pyschologist, or psychatrist will need to state in writing that your condition got worse because of your military service, and not just because of the natural progression of the mental illness.
Presumed Service Connection
Sometimes you can get a mental illness service-connected without having to prove that it was caused by your military service. For example, depression is commonly suffered by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who suffer from traumatic brain injury (TBI). The VA will “presume” that your depression is linked to your military service if your depression develops within a certain time frame after your TBI diagnosis. Read Nolo’s article on getting service connection for TBI to learn more.
Mental Illness as a Result of a Service-Connected Physical Condition
Often veterans develop secondary mental conditions as a result of a physical disability caused on active duty. If you have a service-connected physical disability that resulted in depression or some other mental ailment, you are entitled to an additional disability rating for your mental illness. This is called "secondary service connection" because your second condition, the mental illness, was caused by your primary physical disability, for which you were awarded compensation.
To establish secondary service connection for a mental illness, you must have:
- a current mental illness diagnosis
- a physical disability that has been service-connected, and
- medical evidence of a connection between the service-connected physical condition and your mental illness.
You will typically need a written opinion from a doctor to prove that your mental condition was caused by your physical condition.
How the VA Rates Mental Illness
The VA rates all mental disorders in accordance with the “General Rating Formula for Mental Disorders” in the Schedule for Rating Disabilities. When it comes to your disability rating, what matters is not your symptoms but how those symptoms affect your ability to function in your life, both socially and at work.
Mental illnesses are rated at 0%, 10%, 30%, 50%, 70%, or 100%. You can only receive a 100% rating if you cannot function at work or socially in any way at all.
If you are diagnosed with a mental illness and have symptoms, but your ability to function is not impaired, you will be eligible for only a 0% rating. A 0% rating won't get you monthly cash benefits, but it may make you eligible for VA health care and other benefits.
For more information on ratings and benefit amounts, see Nolo's article on veterans disability ratings.
How to Apply for Disability for Mental Illness
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.