Getting Social Security Disability Benefits for Depression or Bipolar Disorder

Social Security awards disability benefits to people who have depression or bipolar disorder that is severe enough to keep them from working.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

Depression and bipolar disorder are common reasons why people apply for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits. Depression can cause symptoms such as poor concentration, low energy, trouble sleeping, and suicidal thoughts. If you have bipolar disorder—formerly known as manic depression—you may experience periods of depression alternating with periods of manic behavior, which can manifest in rapid speech and physical agitation.

Is Bipolar Disorder a Disability?

Bipolar is considered a potentially disabling medical impairment, as are depression and other mental illnesses. To receive disability benefits, you'll need to show more than just a diagnosis of depression or bipolar disorder, however. You'll have to provide evidence that your depression or bipolar disorder is so severe that you're unable to function well enough to work full-time for at least one year.

What Are the Chances of Getting Disability for Bipolar Disorder?

According to Social Security statistics, in 2022, depression, bipolar, and related disorders were the second leading disabling condition for women and the third leading condition for men who received SSDI. In total, about 12% of all people receiving SSDI or SSI benefits had been found disabled at least partly due to symptoms from bipolar or depression.

Your chances of getting disability are highest after you request an appeal hearing with an administrative law judge, which usually takes several years. But you can improve your chances of getting approved for benefits faster by understanding what important factors the Social Security Administration (SSA) considers when evaluating your claim.

How Can You Get Disability for Bipolar?

You don't need to be depressed every day of the month, but you must show your depressive or manic symptoms occur frequently enough to prevent you from working on a consistent and regular basis for at least one year. Temporary episodes of depression or bipolar symptoms that respond well to medical treatment aren't likely to qualify you for disability benefits.

People with chronic, severe bipolar disorder or depression can get disability in one of two ways—by meeting the requirements of the Blue Book listing for depression and bipolar disorders or by having residual functional capacity limitations that rule out all jobs.

Meeting the Disability Listing for Depression or Bipolar Disorder

You can qualify automatically for disability benefits if you can show you have the symptoms and limitations described in Social Security's listing 12.04 for depression, bipolar, or related disorders. The SSA will review your medical records—including treatment notes from your doctors, mental status evaluations, psychological testing, and hospitalizations—to determine whether you have enough evidence to meet the listing criteria.

Symptoms of Depression and Bipolar

To qualify under listing 12.04 based on a diagnosis of depression, you must have medical documentation showing that you experience at least five of the following symptoms:

  • depressed mood
  • decreased interest in almost all activities ("anhedonia")
  • changes in appetite, resulting in weight loss or gain
  • insomnia or sleeping too much
  • abnormally slow or fast motor movements
  • decreased energy
  • feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • difficulty concentrating or thinking clearly, and
  • thoughts of death or suicide.

To qualify under listing 12.04 based on a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, your medical records must document at least three of the following symptoms:

  • unnaturally fast, frenzied ("pressured") speech
  • quickly changing thought patterns ("flight of ideas")
  • inflated self-esteem, usually with false beliefs
  • decreased need for sleep
  • distractibility
  • involvement in risky activities without awareness of potential painful consequences, and
  • increased physical agitation or goal-directed activity (such as pacing, restless busyness, or starting but not finishing multiple projects).

In addition to proving that you experience the required number of symptoms of depression or bipolar, you'll also need to show that these symptoms result in a "loss of abilities" in certain areas of mental functioning.

Limitations from Depression and Bipolar

For either bipolar disorder or depression, you must show that you have at least an "extreme" limitation in one, or a "marked" (severe) limitation in two, of the following areas:

  • adapting to change or managing oneself (knowing to avoid hazards, having practical personal skills like paying bills, and practicing good hygiene)
  • concentrating on and finishing tasks
  • interacting with others using use socially appropriate behaviors, and
  • understanding, remembering, or using information (being able to give instructions and follow directions).

Alternately, if you can't show that you currently have this loss of abilities because you've been living in a highly structured environment, a 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.

Qualifying for Disability by Showing How Bipolar or Depression Reduces Your Residual Functional Capacity

If Social Security doesn't think you have enough evidence to meet the disability listing, the agency will then determine what you can and can't do in a work setting—a process called assessing your mental residual functional capacity. For people with bipolar or depression, your RFC will likely contain an explanation of your communication skills, how well you can relate to others, your ability to tolerate stress, and whether you can be reliable in showing up to work.

The more invasive your mental health symptoms are, the more limitations you'll have in your RFC. And the more limitations you have in your RFC, the more likely you are to be found disabled. Here's an example:

Make sure that you let Social Security know about all the medical providers with whom you've sought treatment for your bipolar or depression symptoms. Even symptoms that seem minor in isolation can add up when combined with other limitations in your RFC, increasing your chances of a successful disability claim.

Tips on Getting Disability for Depression or Bipolar Disorder

It's unlikely that you'll get approved for disability benefits right away. Most people need to appeal an initial denial before they're awarded SSDI or SSI following a hearing. You might not be able to speed up the process, but you can make sure that you're building the strongest possible case at every stage. With that in mind, here are some tips to consider both before you apply and while you're waiting for a decision.

Medical Opinions About Your Bipolar Disorder or Depression Help Your Case

You should submit a statement from your treating psychiatrist or psychologist that details how severely your symptoms limit your ability to function. For example, your doctor might state that you would miss three or more days of work each month during a manic episode, or that you have trouble focusing for longer than one hour because of depression.

Make sure your doctor provides an explanation for this opinion with reference to their notes. Social Security can't easily disregard the opinion of a therapist who has consistently treated your symptoms and who can point to clinical signs supporting their opinion.

Getting Regular Treatment Is Important

Continue to see your doctor or therapist while you wait for a decision so that you can accumulate a lengthy treatment history. Having "longitudinal records" is key for showing how your symptoms have progressed over time.

For example, your doctor may note during one visit that you're feeling better or that your bipolar disorder has improved. But that appointment might have occurred during a lull between a manic episode and a depressive one, and doesn't accurately reflect your ongoing mental health problems. Multiple visits to your doctor gives the SSA insight into whether you have "good days" and "bad days," and how often each occurs.

If you can't afford to see a doctor or therapist on a regular basis, Social Security might send you to a consultative examination on the agency's dime.

Track Your Medications and Side Effects

Social Security will review your medical records to see whether any medication you've been taking for your depression or bipolar disorder has been effective. If you haven't been prescribed any medication for your impairment, the SSA isn't likely to think that your condition is severe enough to qualify as a disability.

Be sure to take your medication as prescribed and let your doctor know if you experience any side effects. Social Security must consider side effects of prescribed medication that have an impact on your ability to work. But if you don't follow "doctor's orders," the agency might deny your application for failure to follow treatment—unless you have a good reason, such as being unable to afford the medication.

Address Any Drug or Alcohol Dependency

Many disability applicants with bipolar disorder or depression have struggled with addiction issues. During a manic period, for example, people are more likely to engage in risky and thrill-seeking behaviors, which can result in drug or alcohol abuse.

A history of drug or alcohol abuse doesn't have to sink your claim, but you do need to address it. You'll need to show that your substance use isn't material to your claim—that is, your mental health symptoms would still be disabling if drugs or alcohol weren't in the picture. The best way to do this is to establish a period of sobriety in your medical records that shows that your symptoms existed despite abstinence. You can also ask your doctor to provide a statement saying that substance abuse isn't a significant factor contributing to your disorder.

Additional Resources About Bipolar Disorder and Depression

Balancing symptoms of bipolar or depression with the (often frustrating) process of applying for disability benefits can be challenging, especially if you're doing it yourself. You can find additional information—including tips on how to get a lawyer who can help—in our articles on the following related topics:

If you or somebody you know is struggling with depression or bipolar and needs urgent emotional support, the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (call or text 988) and the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741) are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and connect people to trained counselors. For people who aren't in crisis but need somebody to talk to, warmlines are available that are staffed by trained peers who have been through their own mental health struggles.

Updated April 3, 2024

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