Can I Get Disability for PTSD?

Proper medical documentation is the basis of a successful Social Security disability claim for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

By , J.D. · University of Missouri School of Law
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a shocking or frightening event, such as military combat, sexual assault, childhood abuse, a serious accident, or a natural disaster. People with PTSD often experience nightmares, flashbacks, or panic attacks that seriously interfere with everyday life and can keep them from holding down a regular job.

Can You Get SSDI or SSI Disability Benefits for PTSD?

Social Security administers two types of benefits for disabled people—Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). You can receive these disability benefits if symptoms from your PTSD prevent you from working full-time for at least twelve months.

Each program has its own legal eligibility criteria that you'll need to meet before you can collect that type of benefit. SSDI eligibility is determined by your work history, while SSI is needs-based and requires that you meet a low income and asset threshold. It's possible to be eligible to receive both SSDI and SSI, but you won't receive more than the maximum amount you'd get from SSDI alone.

How Can I Receive Disability Benefits for PTSD?

You can qualify for disability benefits in one of two ways—by satisfying the requirements of the Blue Book listing for trauma-related disorders, or under a medical-vocational allowance because your PTSD symptoms rule out all jobs. Either way, you'll need to show that your PTSD has a significant impact on your ability to complete your daily activities.

PTSD Symptoms That Can Qualify for Disability

PTSD symptoms can be as specific to each person as the trauma-causing event ("stressor"). Some people will think obsessively about their stressor, while others will become emotionally numb and avoid thinking about it at all costs. However, there are some symptoms that are common to many people diagnosed with PTSD, such as:

  • feelings of hopelessness, guilt, or shame
  • difficulty concentrating or remembering things
  • anger and irritability
  • trouble sleeping, and
  • excessive anxiety or fear.

While almost everybody who has lived through a traumatic event will feel some degree of shock or fear as a result, people with PTSD have long-lasting, intense symptoms that, when left untreated, tend to get worse over time. Treatment for PTSD often includes some combination of medication, counseling, cognitive-behavioral therapy, or psychotherapy.

Getting Disability by Meeting the PTSD Listing

One method of getting benefits for PTSD is called "meeting a listing." Disability listings are disorders that Social Security considers especially serious. Each numbered listing has a set of requirements that you need to fulfill in order to "meet the listing" and receive benefits.

The disability listing for PTSD is found under Blue Book section 12.00 for mental impairments. Listing 12.15 concerns trauma- and stressor-related disorders (such as PTSD) specifically. You can meet the listing criteria with medically documentation of all of the following:

  • exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or violence
  • subsequent involuntary re-experiencing of the traumatic event (for example, intrusive memories, dreams, or flashbacks)
  • avoidance of external reminders of the event
  • disturbance in mood and behavior, and
  • increases in "arousal and reactivity" (for example, exaggerated startle response, sleep disturbance).

In addition to having evidence of all of the above symptoms , you'll need to show that you have "marked" limitations in two, or an "extreme" limitation in one, of the following functional areas:

  • adapting or managing oneself (regulating one's emotions, adapting to changes, having practical personal skills like cooking, cleaning, and wearing appropriate attire)
  • interacting with others (in socially appropriate ways)
  • concentrating on tasks (being able to finish work at a reasonable pace), and
  • learning, understanding, and remembering information (including following instructions and applying new knowledge to tasks).

"Extreme" limitations are worse than "marked" limitations—you can think of a marked limitation as being able to function independently in an area (but with significant difficulty), while an extreme limitation means you can't function on your own in that area for any meaningful period of time.

You can also meet listing 12.15 if you don't currently have any extreme or marked limitations because you're living in a highly structured or protected setting (such as a group home) and you have limited capacity to adapt to changes outside of that environment.

Getting Disability for PTSD by a Medical-Vocational Allowance

Even if you don't meet the requirements of listing 12.15, you can still collect benefits through what's called a "medical-vocational allowance." A medical-vocational allowance is based on how much your functional limitations restrict your ability to work, taking into consideration factors such as your age, education, skills, and residual functional capacity (RFC).

Your RFC is a set of limitations, physical and mental, on what you can and can't do at work. Social Security looks at your medical records and function reports to determine how much your symptoms interfere with the types of jobs you can do. For example, somebody with fairly well controlled PTSD may have an RFC prohibiting loud work environments that could trigger flashbacks, while another applicant struggling with constant intrusive thoughts might have an RFC restricting them from performing even simple, repetitive tasks.

Social Security compares your RFC with your past work to see if you could return to those jobs today. If not, the agency then determines whether any other jobs exist that you could do, despite the restrictions in your RFC. People who are unable to perform any other full-time work (or who aren't expected to learn) will receive disability benefits.

How Hard Is It to Get Disability for PTSD?

With proper medical documentation, qualifying for disability based on PTSD doesn't have to be a challenge. The disorder is probably one of the more familiar mental impairments seen by Social Security claims examiners and disability judges, so it's less likely that your symptoms will be misunderstood. However, you'll still need to be on top of your game when it comes to gathering and submitting your medical evidence.

Make sure that Social Security has all the medical records related to your PTSD, including inpatient or outpatient psychiatric treatment records and clinical notes from counseling and therapy. The agency will usually request treatment records from the previous year when you file your disability application, but you should provide Social Security with all relevant records from the last several years, if not more.

You should also ask your regular mental health provider if they'd be willing to complete an RFC form or write a letter that addresses the work-related limitations caused by your PTSD. Social Security generally gives special consideration to the opinions of treating doctors, and an RFC form can make the difference between your disability claim being approved or denied. A helpful RFC form should address your ability to:

  • sustain a routine without special supervision
  • maintain attention and concentration
  • understand, remember, and carry out simple and complex instructions
  • avoid excessive absences from work (more than two days per month)
  • make simple work-related decisions
  • interact appropriately with supervisors, coworkers, and the general public, and
  • be on time to work and avoid taking unscheduled breaks from the job.

Your doctor should also state the medical basis for your limitations, and discuss whether these limitations meet the requirements of the PTSD listing. Third-party statements written by friends, family, and former bosses and co-workers can also be helpful in demonstrating that you're not able to work. The statements should focus on the third party's observations of you and their interactions with you, rather than your medical issues.

Additional Information About Disability and PTSD

When you're ready to begin your application for SSDI or SSI, check out our article on filing for Social Security disability benefits. If you're a veteran who is thinking about applying for disability compensation from the VA, we have many articles discussing issues related to PTSD in veterans and military service members. And if you're unsure whether you want to go through the application process alone, review our article on when to talk to a Social Security disability lawyer.

Updated March 8, 2024

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