How Depression Can Qualify for Disability Benefits
August 31, 2022 · 4 min read
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If you’ve struggled to work because of your depression, you may qualify for disability benefits. In 2020, 13% of people received disability benefits for their mental health, including about 5% of people with depression or a similar condition.
To help you qualify for benefits, we’ll break down how the SSA defines depression, when depression can qualify as a disability, and how to get disability benefits for depression.
Is depression a disability?
Depression is a disability according to the Social Security Administration (SSA), meaning it could qualify you for monthly benefit payments.
How the SSA defines depression
The SSA characterizes people with depression and similar disabilities as having difficulty functioning because they experience a lack of interest and pleasure in most activities. Additional symptoms include low energy levels, difficulty sleeping, difficulty concentrating, feelings of worthlessness, or suicidal thoughts.
Common types of depression
Depression is categorized by the SSA along with a handful of similar conditions. Types of depression that can qualify for disability insurance include:
Major depressive disorder (also called clinical depression)
Persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia)
Depression that’s due to another medical condition
Yes, you can get disability benefits for depression if it’s totally disabling, meaning you’re unable to work or handle daily activities on your own.
Unfortunately, the SSA requires you to meet strict medical criteria in order to receive benefits for depression. You may find it difficult to qualify if you aren’t working closely with a psychiatrist, therapist, and possibly other doctors. Working with a disability lawyer can also greatly increase your odds of approval.
Criteria for getting disability with depression
Everyone who wants to receive disability benefits for depression must meet the criteria set by the SSA.
First you need to prove to the SSA that you have a depressive disorder. Then you have to demonstrate that you meet at least one of two other criteria: your depression greatly limits your mental abilities, or your depression persists even though you’ve already received multiple years of treatment for it.
Requirements for getting disability for depression:
1. Prove you have depression AND
2a. Prove that your depression severely limits your mental abilities OR
2b. Prove you have serious depression that’s continued for two years or more
1. Prove you have depression
To prove that you have depression, including clinical depression, dysthymia, and cyclothymia, you must be able to medically prove you experience at least five of the following nine symptoms:
A decrease of interest in almost all activities
Decreased energy levels
Significant changes in appetite or body weight
Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
Observable psychomotor agitation (unintentional muscle movements and restlessness) or a visible slowing of your movements and thoughts
Difficulty concentrating or thinking
Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
Thoughts of death or suicide
2a. Prove depression severely limits your mental abilities
The SSA considers four key areas to determine how depression 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
You will need medical records that show your condition is extremely limiting for at least one area, or markedly limiting for multiple. If you have an extreme limitation, you may be unable to function independently in that area for a sustained amount of time. With a marked limitation, you can handle things yourself but your ability to function is seriously limited.
It isn’t necessary to show every single way that depression affects your mental functioning, but you should have clear evidence of how your condition affects the abilities listed above.
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 an appropriate pace?
Do I struggle to understand and follow oral instructions?
Do I find it difficult to respond to requests, criticisms, or corrections at work?
Have I ever been fired from a job because I had a disagreement with someone?
Does someone have to help me remember to take my medicine or remember my doctor’s appointments?
2b. Prove that your depression is serious and long-term
You can prove that your depression is “serious and persistent” if you have documentation showing all three of the following:
You’ve had depression for at least two years.
You receive ongoing medical treatment to help manage or diminish your symptoms. Treatment can include mental health therapy, care from specialist doctors, and other forms of support that you receive to help manage daily life. Examples of care and support the SSA accepts include relying on family members to help you with daily activities, living in a group home or transitional housing for 24/7 care, and receiving psychosocial support through a rehabilitation program.
Even with your care, you have been mostly or completely unable to adapt to changes in your environment or to new demands that aren’t already part of your daily life.
The SSA will especially consider whether you’ve received continuous care for your depression. Your claim may be denied if your treatments have been inconsistent. Any records of you failing to follow your treatments could also hurt your application.
Some questions to ask yourself:
Do I have a hard time motivating myself to do daily activities, like 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 depression meets the criteria for disability benefits. Now what?
If your depression meets the SSA criteria, your next step is to apply for disability benefits. Even if you aren’t sure whether or not you meet all the medical requirements, you can still apply. There is no harm in applying as long as you complete the application honestly.
To easily determine whether you qualify for benefits, take our free two-minute quiz. If you do qualify, we can also refer you to an experienced lawyer. Our services are totally free and you only have to pay the lawyer if they win your case.
What if my depression doesn’t meet the criteria?
While the SSA's criteria may seem strict, you don't necessarily have to check every box. The important thing is to prove your depression is severe enough to prevent you from working. If you don’t think you meet all the criteria, you should still apply for disability.
Fill out the application honestly and know that your goal is to have medical records or other documentation proving your depression keeps you from working, even though you’re receiving treatment for it.
The SSA will probably deny your initial application, but only 20% of people win their claim on the initial application anyway. Next, you can appeal and you’ll have an opportunity to argue your case in front of a judge. You’re much more likely to win at this stage — nearly half of applicants get approved.
How much is a disability check for depression?
The average disability check for depression and other depressive related disorders is $1,131.37, though the maximum monthly payment is $3,627 for SSDI and $914 for SSI in 2023.
The maximum amounts for SSDI and SSI are the same for every condition, regardless of how severe your disability is. Your exact disability check will depend on your work history if you’re applying for SSDI, and your other sources of income if you’re applying for SSI. Some people can also receive both payments.
3 tips for getting disability with depression
Here are a few ways to increase your chances of success:
See therapist weekly and a psychiatrist monthly. The SSA will check to see how severe your condition is and whether or not you’re actively receiving care for it. Seeing a therapist or counselor and a psychiatrist regularly will show the SSA that you’re taking your condition seriously. Without these regular visits, you’re unlikely to get benefits.
Strengthen your medical records. Work with your doctor and make sure your medical records detail any physical symptoms you’ve experienced, like injuries, fluctuations in weight, or other negative health consequences from your condition.
Get a disability lawyer. Disability applicants who work with a lawyer are three times more likely to win their case. If you want to maximize your likelihood of success, good legal representation is vital. And if you’re still unsure about a lawyer, we get it. Learn more about how a lawyer can help with your disability appeal.
See what benefits you qualify for instantly. Take our easy eligibility quiz.
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