Mental and psychological disabilities qualify for Social Security disability benefits. And while 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.
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Neurocognitive disorders (like dementia, Alzheimer’s or substance-induced cognitive disorders)
Somatic symptom disorders
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 imitations that prevent you from working.
Qualifying for disability with a mental health condition: What makes it hard?
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. And 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 evidence needed to support your claim (We’ll cover some tips for that in the next section).
Additionally, using a lawyer can significantly increase your chances of winning and minimize the stress from the application process. At Atticus, we give free legal advice and match folks with lawyers from our vetted network. Our services are free, and you’ll only pay your lawyer if you win your claim. If you’re interested in additional help on your application, fill out our two-minute questionnaire for customized advice.
Disability application advice for those with mental health conditions
To get approved for disability benefits, you’ve got 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 you’re technically eligible (i.e. you have the right work history, or meet the income limits, for various disability programs), 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.
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.
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 them about an hour, 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.
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.
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/counselor. If you’ve got gaps in treatment due to financial constraints, moving, or other personal reasons, be ready to explain these gaps in your application.
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 are:
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 into 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.
Other application 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 5 years
Records from hospitalizations or emergency room visits that were the result of your medical conditionHospitalizations can be helpful for your disability case because they support a 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.
Instead, 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 4 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 about working on disability.
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).
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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