Applying for Disability Benefits
with a Mental Illness
Mental and psychological disabilities are among the conditions that can qualify for benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA). You may qualify with severe depression, bipolar disorder, an anxiety disorder, or another mental illness that prevents you from maintaining gainful employment.
Social Security disability benefits can cover everyday living expenses, medical bills, and other financial obligations. Benefits are paid monthly and can alleviate many of your financial worries, making it possible for you to get by without income from employment.
Benefits for Disabled Adults
The SSA pays disability benefits through two separate programs:
SSDI is available to disabled adult workers who have paid Social Security taxes, while SSI is a need-based program only available to applicants that meet strict limitations on income and asset holdings. If you have never worked due to your mental illness, you will not qualify for SSDI. If you have financial support from friends or family, you will not qualify for SSI.
Basic Eligibility for Benefits
The SSA must see that you meet basic eligibility requirements before further reviewing your application for benefits. This basic eligibility includes having:
- A formal diagnosis of a potentially disabling condition
- A diagnosed condition that will disable you for 12 months of longer
After the SSA confirms that you meet basic eligibility, they will then move on to review your medical condition in detail and verify that you meet all program requirements for SSDI and/or SSI.
Medical Qualifying with a Mental Illness
The SSA conducts a detailed review of your medical records to determine your eligibility for benefits. During this review, they try to match your records to a disability listing in the “Blue Book.” The Blue Book is the SSA’s medical guide that is used to evaluate every disability application.
Disability listings outline the severity level requirements and the specific medical evidence needed to support a claim for benefits. Mental illnesses appear in Section 12.00 and include:
- 12.06, Anxiety-related Disorders – you may qualify under this listing if you have a severe phobia, post-traumatic stress, a panic disorder, or another anxiety-related condition.
- 12.08, Personality Disorders – this is the listing under which you may qualify if you have severe, clinical depression.
- 12.04, Affective Disorders – if you have bipolar disorder, your application will be reviewed under this listing.
Extensive medical records are necessary to qualify, including:
- Information on your diagnosis, ideally from a psychiatrist or psychologist
- Brain scans or other evidence of physical abnormalities that document an organic cause for symptoms, if applicable
- Treatment records, documenting medications, therapy, and other management methods used and their effects
- Thoroughly documented episodes of increased symptoms or periods of decompensation
- Well documented affects of your symptoms on your everyday abilities or “activities of daily living” (ALDs)
Activities of daily living can include many tasks, from being able to dress yourself, to interacting with others. If you can prove that your mental illness makes it nearly impossible for you to function outside of your place of living, you will have a strong chance of being approved.
For most mental illnesses, you will need to prove that you have been taking medication for two years or more and have not seen any improvement in your condition.
It can be quite challenging to get approved for benefits with a mental illness, especially if you do not precisely meet a Blue Book listing. Be prepared for a tough fight to get approved. Work closely with your doctor when applying for benefits. He or she can help you understand Blue Book requirements and can ensure your medical records contain the types of details necessary for the SSA to accurately evaluate your claim for benefits.
For the best chance of getting approved, be sure to gather the following information:
- ALL medical records. This includes everything from hospitalizations to therapist sessions.
- Any professional’s opinion on the matter. This can include doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, or anyone else who has helped you with your mental illness.
- A list of the medications you’ve been taking, whether or not they have improved your symptoms, and the negative side effects you experience from these medications.
Submitting an Application
If you’re applying only for SSDI, you can do so online, or you can apply at the SSA office nearest you. For SSI however, there is no online application available. This is because an interview is part of the standard application process, and must be completed in person, or under some circumstances, via phone.
Visit the SSA’s website to start your application online or call 1-800-772-1213 to schedule an appointment. There are more than 1300 locations across the US, so you are sure to find an office close to you.
If you are approved for a mental illness, expect to have your case reviewed every year. Some applicants with conditions that will clearly not improve, such as paralysis, are reviewed every 7 years or so. But since mental illnesses can often be treated, you will expect yearly check-ins with the SSA. So long as your condition remains the same year-to-year, you will not later be denied disability benefits.
- Mental Health Association
- Social Security Disability Insurance
- Supplemental Security Income
- Blue Book Mental Disorders – Adult
- Medical Documents