About a quarter of applicants for Social Security benefits list mental health illnesses or disorders as their primary disabling medical conditions. Depression—including bipolar disorder—and anxiety disorders make up the majority of these claims. Other common causes for disability applications include intellectual disability, dementia, schizophrenia, autism, and learning disabilities.
Yes, mental illness can qualify as a disability if your symptoms keep you from working full-time for at least twelve months, despite medical treatment. Full-time work is defined as earning enough money (in 2023, $1,470 per month) to qualify as substantial gainful activity.
According to a survey conducted by the Social Security Administration (SSA) of people receiving disability benefits, about 40% reported a mental health condition or intellectual disability as their reason for their limitations.
While only about one-third of all disability applications are approved at the first stage of review, applicants ("claimants") who see their application through to the hearing level have a greater chance of success. About one-half of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) claims are awarded after a hearing with an administrative law judge.
When you submit your application for SSDI or SSI, a claims examiner at your state Disability Determination Services office will first review your file to make sure that you meet the financial eligibility requirements for the type of benefit you're applying for. If you've worked long enough to qualify for SSDI, or have assets below the threshold limit for SSI, the examiner will request medical records from the providers you listed in your application.
Your medical records are the foundation of your disability claim. Social Security will want to see that you've been getting regular treatment for your mental health symptoms. Your records should contain most, if not all, of the following:
If you have trouble getting consistent mental health treatment because you don't have health insurance or can't get any affordable treatment options, the SSA can send you to a consultative examination on the agency's dime. During a consultative exam, a psychologist or psychiatrist asks you questions about your daily life and your medical history. Based on the exam, the doctor will provide Social Security with an opinion about how serious your mental health symptoms are.
Claimants whose medical records contain evidence of particularly intense mental illness symptoms can qualify for disability benefits without having to go through the added step of showing that they can't do any job. In Social Security lingo, this is called "meeting a listed impairment."
Listed impairments are conditions that the SSA has already determined to be disabling, provided that specific criteria are met. Mental illnesses have their own category (Section 12.00) in Social Security's "Blue Book" list of disabling impairments. Disorders specifically listed include:
Each listed condition has a specific set of requirements that must be documented in your medical records. You need to have been diagnosed with one of the above disorders, but you also need to show that you have very significant ("marked" or "extreme") limitations in areas of mental functioning like interacting with others or remembering tasks.
Showing that you meet the complicated listing criteria can be difficult. Ask your regular psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist to determine whether you may qualify for disability under a mental disorder listing.
Most disability claimants don't have medical records that meet the strict requirements of the mental illness listings. But Social Security can still award you disability benefits if you can show that your residual functional capacity (RFC) rules out all available jobs.
Your RFC is a set of restrictions that reflects the most that you're able to do, mentally and physically, in a work environment. If you have a mental disorder, the SSA will review your medical records to determine the extent of any limitations you have in the following areas:
The more restrictions your mental condition causes, or the more severe your limitations are, the more likely no jobs will exist that you can do with your RFC. For example, if your depression interferes with your concentration to the extent that you're leaving basic work tasks unfinished, it's unlikely that any employer would hire you for even an easy, low-stress job.
You can learn more about what types of mental limitations qualify you for disability in our article about getting disability when you can't do a simple, unskilled job.
Social Security provides several ways that you can file your application for disability benefits:
Keep in mind that the disability determination process can be extremely lengthy. While claims for benefits due to mental illness can often be successful, the time between filing your initial application and when your claim is approved is likely to take several years.
Consider getting help from an experienced disability attorney or advocate to help take some of the stress out of the process. Your lawyer can help you explain in clear, convincing terms how your mental health has an impact on your abilities, whether in your function report or when testifying in front of a judge at a disability hearing. Your lawyer can also help put any less-than-glowing parts of your application, such as evidence of drug or alcohol abuse, into context so that they don't sink your claim. And if you're awarded benefits, your attorney can help you keep them during a continuing disability review.
You can find a lawyer near you using our attorney directory tool here.
Updated December 9, 2022