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Is It Hard to Get Disability for Mental Illness?

Written by
Sydney Hershenhorn
September 12, 2022  ·  8 min read
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Mental and psychological disabilities qualify for Social Security disability benefits. And although mental health cases can be harder to win, around 34.6% of people who receive benefits receive them for a mental health disorder of some kind.  

In this article, we’ll discuss the unique challenges disability applicants with mental health conditions experience. Then, we’ll break down how to overcome these challenges and the best ways to prepare your application.

Which mental illnesses qualify for disability?

There are two ways to qualify for disability with a mental health condition. First, you can qualify if your impairment is listed in the Social Security Administration’s Blue Book.  

Some conditions listed include:

For each condition, you’ll need to meet a specific set of requirements that show your condition is sufficiently severe. If your condition is not listed or you don’t meet the requirements, you can still get benefits by showing that you have mental or emotional limitations that prevent you from working.

Qualifying for disability with a mental health condition

Proving these limitations can be more challenging for applicants with mental illnesses than for applicants with physical limitations. 

It’s harder for the Social Security Administration (SSA) to evaluate mental health symptoms because they change from person to person; creating universal definitions of what’s sufficiently inhibiting is much harder for mental illness than it is with back pain or a blood disorder. 

Unlike physical symptoms, most mental health symptoms can’t be measured by tests or other standard medical methodologies — which are the standards SSA doctors are trained to evaluate based on. 

Unfortunately, mental health claims can also be met with skepticism and bias from disability examiners and judges, who don’t take mental illness as seriously as they should.

Even though these claims can be more difficult to win, you’re more likely to be approved if you understand the medical evidence needed to support your disability claim. Additionally, using a disability lawyer can significantly increase your chances of winning and minimize the stress of the application process. 

We've helped 343 people with mental illness win benefits.

5 Tips for applying for disability with a mental health condition

To get approved for disability benefits, you need to show the government you have a medical condition that makes it impossible to work. You’ll also want to demonstrate that you’re getting medical treatment for your condition. 

You’ll need to make sure have the right work history or meet the income limits for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI); collect and submit a ton of paperwork to the SSA; attend any medical examinations the SSA asks you to go to; and send in follow-up paperwork. 

Beyond that, here are some additional guidelines we recommend following to increase your chances of success.

1. Get as much medical treatment as possible.

The most important thing to remember about applying for disability is that you should be getting as much medical treatment as possible for your condition. Make sure you see your doctors. If you apply and are not receiving medical care, it’s likely you’ll be denied. 

This is especially true if you’re applying with a mental health condition because, unlike physical conditions, you don’t have MRIs, X-rays, or other physical scans and tests that show the severity of your disability. Instead, the SSA will have to rely on your medical records and doctor’s notes, which makes it important that you see your providers regularly. 

During medical treatment, it’s important you tell your doctor about all the ways your mental health condition affects your life on a daily basis: let them know how you’ve been doing since your last visit, any worsening symptoms, and difficulties with specific things in your daily life. 

Learn more about how your doctor can help you get disability.

2. Ask your psychologist or psychiatrist to fill out a “mental residual functional capacity” (MRFC) form.

This form says what types of tasks you can and cannot do. It should only take your psychologist or psychiatrist about an hour to fill out, and it is one of the most helpful things you can do for your case. 

You can call your local SSA office to request a copy of the MRFC form. If you’ve got an attorney, they can help with this too.

3. Take your prescribed medication and follow prescribed treatments.

The SSA can’t measure what your limitations are if you’re not taking medications as prescribed, which can make it really tough to evaluate your case. If you can’t afford your medication, let Social Security know that this is the reason why you don’t take it. 

4. See the right types of providers.

When you apply for disability with a mental health condition, the government will be looking for evidence from a therapist and psychiatrist to document your illness. For this reason, it’s really hard to win unless you’re seeing a licensed psychiatrist and a therapist or counselor. 

If you have gaps in treatment due to financial constraints, moving, or other personal reasons, be ready to explain these circumstances in your application. 

5. Keep a journal.

Often, a large part of mental illness is subjective and can’t be captured by medical tests. This means that a lot of the evidence for your case comes from your personal experience. 

Keeping a daily journal of your symptoms is a great way to stay organized and document how your symptoms impact your day-to-day life. 

This way, when you start your application, you won’t need to worry about forgetting something because it will already be written down. Journals are particularly useful for mental health disorders because your symptoms might change from day to day. 

Some ways to journal effectively include: 

  • Record your daily routine, especially anything that is difficult for you because of your illness or condition.

  • Include pain or other symptoms that you experience.

  • Review your journal with your medical provider at your appointments. If they log details in your formal medical records, it gives the account additional credibility. 

If you’re not able to keep a journal, consider asking a trusted friend or family member to help document your symptoms. You don’t have to write a novel; a few sentences a day is fine. 

FAQs for applicants with mental illnesses

What should I include in my application? 

The SSA will require numerous documents from you when you apply for benefits. We recommend gathering all of this information before you start your application so you can stay organized. You should include: 

  • Records from psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, counselors, or social workers who treated you for your condition in the last five years

  • Records from hospitalizations or emergency room visits that were the result of your medical condition

  • Hospitalizations can be helpful for your disability case because they support the conclusion that your disability is severe. If you’ve been hospitalized for mental health or visit the ER frequently, you should make sure you include it on your application.  

  • Pharmacy records that detail the prescriptions related to your condition (and who prescribed them)

  • Names, addresses, phone numbers, patient ID numbers, and dates of examinations and treatments from all of your providers

Avoid including medical records from providers who didn’t treat you for your mental health condition, like your chiropractor or podiatrist. Make copies of your medical records. The SSA loses things, and it’s important to have backups just in case. 

What are common mistakes that could jeopardize my application? 

Avoid exaggerating, and always tell the truth. Credibility is a major factor in disability cases involving mental health conditions. The SSA and its administrative judges review many applications per year, and they can tell when you’re exaggerating your symptoms. 

Be as specific as possible about how your condition affects your daily life. For example, when you’re asked what you do each day, don’t say “I wake up and stay inside all day.” 

Instead, say “I have panic attacks and severe nightmares, so most mornings I am exhausted when I wake up. It can take me four hours to get out of bed. Sometimes, I feel so discouraged that I have suicidal thoughts. When my mood is low, I go days without eating because I don’t have the strength to prepare food. I am terrified to leave the house because I have panic attacks in public, so I stay indoors all day.”

Providing details about how your condition affects your life will show the SSA and the judge the extent and severity of your disability without undermining your credibility. 

Can I still work while applying for disability benefits?

Working can be risky when you’re applying for disability benefits. When you apply for Social Security disability benefits, you’re effectively trying to tell the government that can’t work. 

If you’re earning a significant amount of money each month, it could undermine your case. For more information about whether you can work on disability benefits, check out our article here

Will the SSA or the judge reject my application because I use drugs or alcohol?

There is a common misconception that you cannot get approved for disability benefits if you’re abusing drugs or alcohol. This is partially true: if your medical records show that your medical condition would go away if you did not abuse drugs or alcohol, your application will be denied. 

Additionally, the SSA does not consider drug addiction or alcoholism alone as disabling conditions. That being said, you can get approved for disability even if you’re currently abusing drugs or alcohol as long as you can show that your medical condition would still be disabling if you were sober. 

Get (free) legal help with disability benefits

At Atticus, we’ve helped hundreds of people get disability benefits for mental illness. Our team is on call to talk through your case, give free legal advice, and refer you to a lawyer who specializes in mental health cases (if you want or need one). 

Our intake quiz takes just two minutes, and you’ll never get a bill for our services.

See if your mental illness qualifies for disability.

Summing it up: Frequently asked questions about disability benefits

Can you get disability for mental illness?

While there are some additional challenges to getting disability with a mental illness, you can get SSDI or SSI for mental conditions. Around 34.6% of current disability applicants have a mental health condition of some kind. Read more about how to qualify here.

Is it hard to get disability for mental illness?

It can be harder to get disability benefits with a mental illness, but it’s still possible. The Social Security disability evaluation process is heavily based on medical evidence, so you’ll want to work closely with your doctors to document your limitations. Read more application tips here.

What mental illnesses qualify for disability?

Any mental illness that prevents you from working can qualify for disability benefits. Amongst the most common are anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, developmental disorders, autism spectrum disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and schizophrenia spectrum disorders. For a full list of conditions that qualify (including the conditions that medically qualify automatically) head here.

How do you apply for disability for mental illness?

You can apply online, in-person, over-the-phone, or with the help of an attorney. If you don’t have a lawyer, we recommend applying in-person at an SSA office. You’ll want to make sure you have all your employment and medical records ready. Read our full application guide to ensure your best chances of success. 

Can I still work while applying for disability benefits?

Legally, disability benefits are for people who are too sick to work—and working too much may indicate to the Social Security Administration that you don’t actually need benefits. If you’re not working full-time, and are making below the SSA’s mandated maximum amounts per month, you can still apply. For the full details on working and SSDI/SSI, read more here

Will the SSA or the judge reject my disability application because I use drugs or alcohol?

Technically, you can get approved for disability even if you’re currently abusing drugs or alcohol as long as you can show that your medical condition would still be disabling if you were sober. If your medical records show that your medical condition would go away if you did not drink or use drugs, your application will be denied. We answered this question more thoroughly in our “Ask Atticus” column.

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Sydney Hershenhorn


Sydney Hershenhorn is an attorney on Atticus’s Client Experience team. She‘s a licensed attorney, a graduate of New York Law School, and has counseled hundreds of people seeking disability benefits. In her free time, she enjoys cooking and spending time in nature.
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