Can I apply for Social Security if I have a mental condition?

Absolutely! Though mental illness is sometimes called the “invisible illness,” mental disorders are the primary diagnosis of a large proportion of all SSI and SSDI recipients. In 2016, a mental disorder was the primary diagnosis of 37.3% of SSDI beneficiaries and 60.2% of SSI recipients.

How to prove you are disabled because of a mental disorder

A quick refresher

The approval process,[1] regardless of your medical condition, first evaluates whether your condition meets or equals certain specific medical criteria detailed in something called “the listings,” then whether you can go back to your old job, and finally whether you could perform any other job.

For most[2] mental disorders, your condition can meet or equal the listings one of two ways.

Method 1
  • Your medical records reflect specific symptoms or findings, and
  • Your condition results in an extreme limitation in one of the four areas of functioning described in the section below, or marked limitations in two of the four areas of functioning.

For some of the mental disorder listings, if you cannot satisfy Method 1, you can meet the listings another way.

Method 2
  • You have a documented history of the disorder over the past two years or more;
  • receive ongoing mental treatment, therapy, supports, or are in a highly structured setting that diminishes the symptoms of your mental disorder; and
  • have a minimal capacity to function outside of your current environment.

An example of this would be someone who is in a highly structured mental health day program during the day, lives with a caregiver at night such as a parent or spouse, and could not function without the assistance of either or both.

Functional Limitations – Method 1, and beyond

For mental disorders, SSA breaks functioning down into four distinct areas assessing your ability to:

  • Understand, remember, or apply informationThis refers to your ability to learn, recall, and use information to perform work activities.

Ex: Following one or two step instructions, asking and answering questions, understanding and learning new tasks, and making work-related decisions.

  • Interact with others. This refers to your ability to relate to and work with other people, including supervisors, co-workers, and the public.

Ex: Cooperating with others, handling conflicts with others, initiating or sustaining conversation, and responding to criticism or correction.

  • Concentrate, persist, or maintain pace. This refers to your ability to focus attention on work activities and stay on task at a sustained rate.

Ex: Completing tasks in a timely manner, ignoring or avoiding distractions while working, changing activities or work settings without being disruptive, and sustaining an ordinary routine and regular attendance at work.

  • Adapt or manage oneself. This refers to your ability to regulate emotions, control behavior, and maintain well-being in a work setting.

Ex: Responding to demands, adapting to changes, making plans for yourself independently of others, and maintaining personal hygiene and attire appropriate to a work setting.

Residual Functional Capacity – When Methods 1 and 2 don’t work

If you cannot meet the listings by Method 1 or 2, DDS will determine whether you can go back to your old job, and if not, whether you can perform other work. See my prior post here for a more detailed look at this step of the process. However, what is important to know here is that DDS will look back at the four functional areas above to determine whether you can do any work.  If DDS determines that you cannot perform unskilled work on a regular basis as a result of your limitations in the four functional areas, your claim will be approved.

What’s the moral of the story?

The moral of the story is twofold: First, don’t think you’ll be denied just because you have an “invisible illness.” More people living with mental illness than you probably realize have been approved for SSI and SSDI. And second, ignoring the technical evaluation process for a moment, it all comes down to how you function, not your specific diagnosis or whether someone can “see” your disability when she looks at you.


[1] For a more detailed refresher, see my prior posts here, here, and here

[2] Intellectual disorders are evaluated differently than all other mental disorders and deserve a blog post of their own. Personality and impulse-control disorders, autism spectrum disorder, neurodevelopmental disorders, somatic symptom and related disorders, and eating disorders are only met through Method 1. 

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Author: Kathryn L. Blevins, Esq.

Attorney. Small business owner. Military family. I am the owner and attorney at Blevins Law, LLC. My firm focuses on Social Security disability claims (SSI and SSDI), Veterans' Disability Compensation, Advance Medical Directives and medical and financial powers of attorney. I also assist veterans assessing other types of VA benefits they may be eligible for. I am licensed in Maryland and Washington, D.C., and am a VA Accredited Attorney. I am the proud wife of an Army veteran, and the proud mother of two amazing children and three rescued fur children.

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