Mental Disability: When Social Security Finds You Cannot Do Unskilled Work

You should get Social Security disability if you have a substantial loss in your ability to do tasks required by even simple, unskilled work.

Mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can prevent individuals from doing full-time work, even at a job that is simple and doesn't require skills. Sometimes these individuals qualify for Social Security disability benefits. Whether the Social Security Administration (SSA) will find you are disabled based upon a mental disorder depends on the severity of your symptoms and how significantly they interfere with your performance of a job.

Social Security does have official disability "listings" for mental impairments, including anxiety-related disorders, mood disorders, and personality disorders. Meeting the requirements of any of the listings automatically leads to a finding of disability. However, individuals can also be approved for disability benefits because they lack the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform even simple, unskilled work. (Your RFC is Social Security's assessment of the maximum physical and mental abilities you possess in spite of your medical condition.)

The Mental Requirements of Simple, Unskilled Work

Under Social Security's guidelines, jobs that are simple and unskilled require the mental capability to perform, on a sustained basis, a number of tasks in several different categories. If you suffer from a substantial loss of abilities in any of the tasks below, Social Security guidelines dictate that the number of jobs available to you will be so reduced that you should be found disabled.

Understanding, Remembering, and Carrying Out Simple One- and Two-step Instructions

  • remembering work procedures and locations
  • maintaining concentration and attention for extended periods of time (approximately two hours)
  • sustaining an ordinary routine without extra supervision
  • working in coordination with others without distracting (or being distracted by) them

Using Judgment

  • making simple work-related decisions
  • being aware of hazards and taking necessary precautions

Responding Appropriately to Coworkers, Supervisors, and Common Work Situations

  • asking simple questions of colleagues and bosses
  • accepting feedback and instructions from supervisors
  • interacting appropriately with bosses and coworkers

Dealing with Changes in a Routine Work Setting

  • responding appropriately to normal changes to your work routine

Attendance and Punctuality

  • keeping adequate attendance
  • being punctual
  • performing activities within a schedule
  • completing a normal workday and workweek without interruption from psychological symptoms
  • perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods

Attendance Requirements

Regarding "adequate attendance," unskilled workers are generally allowed no more than one absence per month, and employers often have a probationary period for new employees lasting three to six months, during which time there is a "zero tolerance" policy for unexcused absences. If your doctor agrees that you aren't able to attend work regularly to meet these requirements, Social Security should find you disabled.

Proving You Cannot Meet the Mental Demands of Unskilled Work

Disability claims examiners and administrative law judges (ALJs) rely on both medical and non-medical evidence to assess the nature and extent of your condition. Treatment notes from psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health providers often play a critical role in this determination, and medical source statements from treating doctors and other providers can shed further light on your limitations.

MRFC. Although some doctors prefer to submit narrative reports in support of Social Security disability applications, most find it easier to complete a Mental Residual Functional Capacity (MRFC) form supplied by a disability attorney. The mental RFC is designed to elicit information about a person's memory, concentration, social skills, and ability to adapt to situations in the workplace. It also asks about one's ability to maintain adequate attendance and whether one would be off-task for more than 15% of the workday.

Backed up by evidence. Social Security may ignore your treating physician's opinion if it's not well supported by medically accepted clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and/or it's inconsistent with other medical evidence in your file. In other words, your doctor's opinions should be backed up by his or her clinic notes. ALJs will not hesitate to assign medical opinions "little weight" if they aren't consistent with the other evidence in your file.

Disability claimants and their attorneys should encourage mental health professionals to provide detailed, well-reasoned responses on the mental RFC forms, citing to specific treatment notes if possible. For example, if a physician believes his patient would miss several days of work per month, he or she could explain how the patient's severe and well-documented anxiety causes him to stay at home for weeks at a time.

Whose opinions count. It is common for those with mental illnesses to receive their regular weekly treatment from social workers, therapists, counselors, or other personnel, while seeing their psychiatrist or psychologist every month or two. Because these providers see you more frequently, their opinions sometimes contain additional details or insights that could be lacking in your physician's RFC. While Social Security generally finds the opinions of psychiatrists and psychologists to be more persuasive than those of other mental health professionals, it's a good idea to submit as many favorable opinions from as many different sources as you possibly can.

Give a full picture. You and your attorney should be sure to submit all the relevant evidence related to your condition, including records of inpatient hospitalizations, possibly school or employment records, and even statements from friends, family members, and former employers. The observations of former colleagues and bosses can be particularly helpful, especially when they emphasize your past difficulties in a job setting.

Consider Contacting a Disability Attorney

Because mental health conditions don't appear on x-rays or MRIs, establishing the presence of severe symptoms can be a challenge. Contact a qualified disability attorney who can work with your treating providers to put your case in the best light possible. Our Lawyer Directory will help you find a representative in your area.

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