mental disorders

How Bipolar Disorder Can Qualify for Disability Benefits

Jackie Jakab, Attorney
By Jackie Jakab, Attorney

Do you struggle to work because of your bipolar disorder? You may qualify for monthly disability benefits. About 13% of people received disability in 2020 because of their mental health, including about 5% of people with bipolar disorder or a similar condition.

To increase your chances of approval, we’ll break down the government definition for bipolar disorder and how to get disability benefits for your bipolar disorder.

Is bipolar disorder a disability?

Yes, bipolar disorder is a disability according to the Social Security Administration (SSA). Whether you have bipolar I, bipolar II, or cyclothymia (cyclothymic disorder), it can qualify if it leaves you unable to work.

How the SSA defines bipolar disorder

Under the SSA definition, people with bipolar disorder experience a range of moods — from depressed or irritable to elevated or expansive.

Common symptoms include big changes in mood, rapid speech, flight of ideas (your mind races from one thought to another), a diminished need for sleep, becoming easily distracted, and psychomotor agitation (muscle twitches or restlessness that you can’t control).

Can you get disability for bipolar disorder?

It’s possible to get disability benefits for bipolar disorder if your condition leaves you unable to work. Another sight you may qualify for disability is that you have a hard time managing your own day-to-day care.

However, the SSA has strict criteria for people with bipolar disorder. You may find it difficult to qualify for benefits, especially if you aren’t regularly a therapist each week, a psychiatrist at least monthly, and maybe other specialist doctors.

Having legal representation can also boost your chance of success. Consider finding a disability lawyer if you plan to apply for benefits.

Criteria for getting disability with bipolar disorder

The SSA has three general criteria that you must satisfy to qualify for disability with bipolar disorder:

1. Prove you have bipolar disorder AND

2a. Prove your bipolar disorder severely limits your mental functioning OR

2b. Prove that you’ve continuously treated your bipolar disorder for two years or more

First, you need to prove to the SSA that you have bipolar disorder by exhibiting certain symptoms. Next, you must show that you meet at least one of two other criteria: your bipolar disorder greatly limits your mental functioning, or your bipolar disorder persists even though you’ve already received multiple years of treatment for it.

1. Prove you have bipolar disorder

To prove that you have bipolar disorder, you must experience three or more of the following seven symptoms:

  • Pressured speech (you speak rapidly and may feel the need to always share your thoughts)
  • Flight of ideas (your mind quickly moves from one thought to the next)
  • You’re easily distracted
  • Inflated self-esteem
  • A decreased need for sleep
  • Increase in goal-directed activity (like taking on many new projects) or psychomotor agitation (restlessness or muscle movements you can’t control)
  • You take part in activities that are likely to result in negative or painful consequences, but you don’t recognize those likely consequences

2a. Prove bipolar disorder severely limits your mental functioning

The SSA will consider four key abilities to determine how bipolar disorder affects your mental functioning:

  • Your ability to understand, remember, or apply information
  • Your ability to interact with others
  • Your ability to concentrate and to stay on task at a sustained rate
  • Your ability to adapt to changes or manage yourself

To meet this part of the criteria, you’ll need medical records or similar documentation that shows your bipolar disorder extremely limits at least one area, or markedly limits at least two. Having an extreme limitation means you can’t function independently for a sustained amount of time. Having a marked limitation means your functioning is severely limited, but you can still handle things yourself.

The more evidence you have of your condition affecting the mental activities above, the stronger your case will be. You don’t need to show every single example of bipolar disorder affecting you, though.

Some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do I have a hard time ignoring and avoiding distractions while working?
  • Is it hard for me to consistently work at a steady pace?
  • Do I struggle to understand and follow oral instructions?
  • Do I find it difficult to respond to requests, criticisms, or corrections?
  • Have I ever injured myself or someone else because of a disagreement at work?
  • Have I ever been fired from a job because I had a disagreement with someone?
  • Do I have a hard time focusing on a two-hour movie without getting lost?
  • Does someone have to help me remember to take my medicine or remember my doctor’s appointments?

2b. Prove that your bipolar disorder is serious and long-term

In order to prove to the SSA that your bipolar disorder is “serious and persistent,” you will need documentation showing three things:

  • You’ve had bipolar disorder for at least two years.
  • You receive ongoing medical treatment to help diminish or manage your symptoms. Accepted types of treatment include mental health therapy, psychiatry, and care from specialist doctors. Other forms of support can also qualify if they help you manage daily life. For example, the SSA will consider if you rely on family members to help you with daily activities, if you live in a group home or transitional housing for 24/7 care, and if you receive psychosocial support through a rehabilitation program.
  • You are still mostly or completely unable to adapt to changes in your environment or to new demands that aren’t already part of your daily life.

As you collect evidence, really make sure that you can show persistent care over the past two years or longer. Any lapses in treatment or inconsistencies in following your treatment will hurt your case.

Some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do I have a hard time handling daily activities by myself, such as bathing, getting dressed, cooking, or grocery shopping?
  • Is it hard for me to handle new things or new people in my life?
  • Do I ever have suicidal thoughts?
  • Have I experienced episodes that require hospitalization, new medications, or additional treatments?

My bipolar disorder meets the criteria. Now what?

After confirming that you can meet the SSA criteria, the next step is to apply for disability benefits. If you’re unsure whether or not you qualify, you can still apply. As long as you fill out the application honestly, there are no negative side effects to applying.

An easy way to determine your eligibility is also to take our free online quiz. We can help you understand your benefits options and if you qualify, we can also refer you to an experienced disability lawyer who we trust and who you won’t have to pay unless they win your case.

If you’re still unsure whether disability benefits are right for you, you may also want to read more about the two main types of disability, SSDI and SSI.

What if my bipolar disorder doesn’t meet the criteria?

The SSA does have very strict eligibility requirements, especially when it comes to mental health. If you don’t think you meet all the criteria, you may still be able to get benefits.

You can start by applying for benefits anyway. There’s no harm in it, as long as you fill out your application truthfully. Only 20% of applicants even get benefits through their initial application. If SS denies your claim, you can appeal the decision. Applicants are much more likely to win an appeal, with nearly half getting approved at this stage.

However, we suggest hiring a disability lawyer to help with your appeal. Winning an appeal requires you to present your case and all your medical evidence to a judge. Having good legal representation will make the appeal significantly easier and you’re much more likely to win. In general, disability applicants with lawyers are three times more likely to win their claim.

How much is a disability check for bipolar disorder?

Data from the SSA shows the average disability check for bipolar disorder and related disorders is $1,131.37 per month.

The highest possible payment is about $3,300 per month for SSDI and $841 per month for SSI. The maximum payment amounts for SSDI and SSI are the same for every disability, regardless of severity or how many conditions you have.

Your exact disability benefit will depend on your work history if you apply for SSDI or your other assets and income sources if you apply for SSI. You could receive both payments in some cases, but that isn’t common.

3 Tips for getting disability with bipolar disorder

The application process is long and complex, but there are a few things you can do to put yourself one step ahead.

  • See a therapist weekly and a psychiatrist monthly. Regularly speaking with a therapist or counselor in addition to a psychiatrist will show the SSA that your condition is serious and that you’re taking treatment seriously. Getting benefits is very unlikely if you aren’t receiving frequent care.
  • Strengthen your medical records. Your medical records are a major part of the application. Work closely with your doctor so that their records accurately represent how serious your condition is. If you’ve ever been injured or hospitalized because of your bipolar disorder, make sure that’s all in the medical records. Also make sure your doctor is tracking things like fluctuations in weight or other side effects from your bipolar disorder. If you’ve changed primary doctors in the past, ask your current doctor’s office to help collect your old medical records.
  • Talk to a lawyer. Believe it or not, the disability application is primarily a legal matter. Doctors can help with your application but most of them don’t know the process well. A disability lawyer is an expert in the process and they can help you build the strongest possible case.

Ready to get benefits today?
Jackie Jakab, Attorney
Jackie Jakab, AttorneyJackie Jakab is Atticus’s Legal Director. She’s a licensed attorney, a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, and has counseled thousands of people seeking disability benefits.
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