You may be able to get SSDI for severe depression and anxiety if you can prove your symptoms are truly disabling. We explain the steps you must take to have your case approved if you are qualified.

Millions of Americans suffer from depression and anxiety. In clinical terms, depression is an ongoing mood disorder accompanied by a loss of interest in activities both personal and professional. Anxiety, which sometimes accompanies depression, is an inner state of unpleasant emotions often accompanied by nervous behavior. Both anxiety and depression can be extremely debilitating in terms of making a living.

Is Depression a Disability? 7 Criteria to Meet for Social Security

Benefits

  1. Sleep Disorder
  2. Suicidal Thoughts
  3. Depressed Mood
  4. Diminished Interest
  5. Functional Limitation
  6. Appetite Disturbance
  7. Feelings of Worthlessness

The good news is that those with either depression and anxiety can qualify for SSDI benefits. The Social Security Administration has a process for evaluating your right to collect Social Security disability benefits based on claims of a mental health problem. You will need to exhibit at least 5 of these depression symptoms.

Sometimes, depression or anxiety is triggered by a major life change like a death, divorce, or job change. Though these events can be traumatic, the depression around them is normal, healthy, and will resolve itself over time. However, once feelings and symptoms of depression linger on every day all day for more than half a month, your depression may have entered into the realm of a clinical condition.

Traumatic events can also trigger anxious feelings and nervous behaviors. Anxiety is treatable with therapy and/or psychiatric medication. However, if left untreated it can become a debilitating condition. In many cases, depression and anxiety can stem from a genealogical tendency towards these conditions, similar to many other diseases. 

Social Security Disability benefits are meant to supplement or entirely cover the living expenses of individuals who were once working, but are no longer able to because of a disabling condition. These conditions need to be a functional limitation, which could include a mental health issue. However, there is a process the SSA (Social Security Administration) uses to gauge whether or not an individual should receive SSDI payments for depression and/or anxiety.

Do You Meet the Criteria for Social Security Benefits?

A sleep disorder can be characterized by periods of wakefulness (insomnia) or oversleeping. A depressed person may have serious issues sleeping or over-sleeping, which in turn can lead to a general functional limitation and other health issues. Suicidal thoughts can plague a person suffering from the mental illness of depression. These can range from vague ideations to actual plans that present a sizable risk factor to those suffering from severe depression.

Depressed mood is a term signifying the overall emotional state of a depressed person. This ongoing and disabling depression may present itself as a negative outlook or feelings of sadness. It is normal for life changes to bring on a depressive episode, but depressive symptoms going on longer than 14 days may indicate clinical depression that needs treatment.

Diminished interest in personal activities is another sign of a depressive disorder. A loss of investment in your work or business, a lack of interest connecting to family members or friends, or failure to find engagement in once meaningful hobbies can all be signs of depression. Functional limitations due to your depression might include the psychomotor agitation of nervous motions like pacing or wringing hands. Depression can indeed manifest as a physical disability such as slowed reaction time or inability reminiscent of a learning disability, such as the inability to follow directions or retain information.

Appetite disturbance is another common symptom of depression. This will usually mean a reduced appetite or lack of interest in eating typically favorite foods, but it can also manifest as an eating disorder if the patient attempts to mask their pain with unhealthy eating habits.

Feelings of worthlessness can plague both those suffering from major depression and even a slightly depressed person. These feelings of low self-worth might relate to job performance, parenting abilities, contribution to society, or any other factor tied into a feeling of worth.

The Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety

Depression and anxiety are terrible afflictions that can completely turn your life on its head. There are treatments for these illnesses, however often they become long, drawn out intervention plans that may not be completely effective. Dealing with such medical problems can be overwhelming, and adding financial pressures because of lost time at work or medical costs just make the situation worse. Nonetheless, there could be help in the way of payments to you through the Social Security Disability and/or Supplemental Security Income programs, both administered by the Social Security Administration.

Depression is the most common not-imminently fatal medical condition leading to disability in America. The World Health Organization has identified depression as the number one cause of disability in the world with over 300 million sufferers. Depression causes a person to feel a significant state of sadness, guilt, inadequacy, dejection, and despondency. Along with such feelings there may be insomnia, restless sleep, excessive sleep, lack of energy, reduced or no sexual desire, and appetite loss or excessive eating.

Anxiety is another frequently seen emotional condition. Although different from depression it sometimes accompanies depression and has some similar symptoms including a sense of foreboding, and obsessive thoughts. Anxiety can range from low-grade chronic worry to strong feelings of fear to outright panic and is often accompanied by agitation. The symptoms can also include uncontrollable sweating, nausea, increased heart rate, or shaking, even chest pains that mimic a heart attack.

Causes of Depression or Anxiety

Although it is not clear, family genes or other biological reasons may cause or influence the emergence of depression. It is not uncommon to see these conditions shared by members of the same family. Depression may also be brought on by changes in one’s life such as divorce, death, or a job change, however, such periods of depression normally resolve themselves within a relatively short period of time. However, if such a severe mood lasts every day for two-weeks or longer, then depression may require treatment to be resolved. 

If your depression has been persisting, it is important to seek treatment early, both for treatment and to document its existence and severity should you have difficulty recovering and have to file a disability claim.

Anxiety may come on for no apparent reason or may also be familial. If left untreated, anxiety can worsen to the point that it interferes with the ability to concentrate and complete tasks needed for normal work activities. Some individuals’ anxiety reaches the point that they may refuse to leave their homes for fear of triggering an episode of panic.

Anxiety Disorders

Let’s take a closer look at the five types of recognized anxiety disorders.

  • General Anxiety Disorder - Approximately six months of near-constant state of worry, not related to a single event, results in a diagnosis of general anxiety disorder.
  • Social Phobia/Anxiety - Irrational feelings making a person fearful of events, social settings, or objects, leading the person to avoid them.
  • Panic Attack - Repeated and unprovoked feelings of panic or terror lasting ten minutes or less.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) - Witnessing or being a part of a traumatic situation that causes repeated bouts of acute distress six months or more after the precipitating event. Symptoms may include involuntary intrusive memories, avoidance of potentially triggering situations, reactivity, disassociation, and other symptoms.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) - Repetitive thoughts and feelings forcing the person to repeat a task or behavior over and over again. To be disabling, this must cause severe distress and impede functioning in a work setting for a claim to be approved.

Depression and anxiety can be difficult to prove because there is no laboratory test to establish these problems, so it becomes a subjective judgment. Experts must rely in part on a patient’s words to express their feelings; however there are a number of ways to make your claim more concrete.

The actual types of depression or anxiety do not concern SSA nearly as much as how those conditions are impacting your ability to work.

Drug and Alcohol Use

SSDI benefits are not payable for disabilities caused by drugs and alcohol. If drug or alcohol usage, addiction, or dependency are on your medical record, you will need to show that your depression and/or anxiety is a separate issue. Otherwise, the disability examiner may reach a conclusion your disability is solely from, or materially contributed to by, that usage. 

For example, your depression might be determined to be a result of excessive substance abuse. A statement from your doctor could help by saying that you have a free-standing mental illness irrespective of the addiction. In addition, if you have a documented period when you were clean and sober but still suffered from depression or anxiety, it would strengthen your case.

Part of the investigation could be that the disability examiner would order a one-time consultation to be completed by a doctor SSA pays for and approves. The downside to this method is it may not produce a favorable result for you as far as approving your claim. The reason is that the doctor will only be seeing you one time and may not really be able to determine how your condition limits your work activity or the correct source of the limitations.

To avoid having your case rely only upon a consultative exam, your best chance of winning a claim approval is with thorough documentation of examinations, consultations, medications, and a complete medical history of your condition. Couple those with all your work records showing how your work activity has been affected.

How to Apply for Disability Benefits for Depression

Applying for benefits begins with filling out the Social Security Disability Application. You can do this over the phone, online, or by walking into your nearest Social Security Office. You will need your Social Security number and proof of your age (such as a birth certificate or passport), along with the names and contact information for any medical professionals that were involved in your treatment or diagnosis. You will also need names and dosages of your medications, medical records, lab results (if applicable), a summary of where you worked and what was involved in your job, and the most recent W-2 or Federal Tax Return (if self-employed). 

The review process can take a while. In many cases, it will take anywhere from 30 to 90 days. Thankfully there is Social Security Disability Back Pay that will be dated to the time of your application. Even so, you will most likely want to line up other resources while you wait for your SSDI Award Letter to arrive.

One of the first things the SSA will do is determine whether or not you are working at a substantial gainful activity (SGA) level. The SGA level is a threshold to determine if you need financial assistance in the form of SSDI. As of 2020, substantial gainful activity is deemed to be earnings over $1,260, either as wages or as net profit if you are self-employed. If you are legally blind, that threshold is raised to $2,110. You are allowed to deduct Impairment-Related Work Expenses (IRWE) such as medical treatment from your wages or net profit.

The SSA will also consult the Blue Book, which lists serious medical conditions and is used by the SSA to determine the validity around SSDI claims relating to depression or anxiety, without assessing your work history. 

If you have any of the three following conditions, you meet the requirements for clinical anxiety: restlessness; easy fatigue, difficulty concentrating, general irritability, chronic muscle tension, and frequent sleep disturbance. If you are making a case for panic disorder, you will need a history of panic attacks and worry about future panic attacks and their consequences. If you are making a case for agoraphobia, you will need to have undue anxiety about two different situations, such as using public transit, waiting on long lines, or being outside your home. For obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) you will need to have intrusive and involuntary unwanted thoughts or repetitive behaviors that help you reduce anxiety.

For both depression and anxiety, you will also need to show that you have a functional limitation in adapting to change, managing yourself (that is, skills like paying bills, shopping, and practicing hygiene), concentrating, interacting with others, and understanding and applying information. You will need to show severe impairment of at least one activity or less severe impairment of at least two activities.

How to Show Your Depression is a Disability

While some of these conditions seem to be clear cut on paper, other components (such as mood) are hard to prove outside of medical documentation. This is why it’s important to get mental health professionals involved in your treatment so that it can be clearly documented by authoritative figures who can help you secure an SSDI Award Letter.

If you do not meet any of the conditions in the Blue Book, your claim will still be evaluated as a possible medical-vocational allowance, which will take into account your medical records. These medical records will come from certified or licensed mental health professionals like psychiatrists, psychologists, clinics, or even hospitals. The recommendations of social workers and nurse practitioners do not carry much weight in this analysis in comparison to psychiatrists and psychologists, so if those professionals are not available to you, mention that in your application. 

It’s a good idea to confirm with your mental health professionals that their reports reflect how symptoms of depression or anxiety impacted your daily life and the effectiveness of their treatment plan. Choosing not to take medication may count against you, but being unable to get it because of its price or side effects are acceptable reasons.

Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) Evaluation

For the SSA to approve a claim for depression or anxiety when you do not have a condition that meets the listings, your limitations and your work history and education must show that you cannot perform SGA in any occupation you’ve worked in the past and in any new occupation. To do this, the claims examiner considers the skills you have from prior work, your education, and your age as well as your mental health residual functional capacity and compares those elements to the mental requirements of potential occupations. 

Your physician or a consulting physician may be asked to complete a mental status RFC questionnaire, which evaluates your ability to work with people, concentrate, follow instructions, submit to authority, and other mental and emotional capacities needed to work. Alternatively, the examiner may extract this information from existing medical records. Your residual capacities will then be compared to the mental and emotional demands of occupations that you could do if you did not have mental health limitations.

If You Are Denied

If your claim is denied, strongly consider getting a copy of your claim file and seeking advice from an attorney who specializes in depression and anxiety Social Security disability claims. That way you can get a professional opinion as to whether an appeal would be worthwhile.

If benefits are approved, a review called a continuing disability review (CDR) will be conducted in the future to determine whether you are still disabled at that time. Accordingly, it is important to remain under the ongoing care of a mental health professional.

Disability for Depression and Anxiety

It is normal for people to go through periods of anxiety or depression, especially in response to major life events such as a death, divorce, or loss of a job. Sometimes even positive life events can trigger these feelings, such as a child moving out of the house to attend college.

However, depression and anxiety that lingers on beyond two weeks is cause for clinical concern. You should seek the help of medical professionals such as a psychotherapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist if you experience prolonged periods of a low mood, aversion or disinterest in activities or work, disruptions to your sleep, or thoughts of suicide or self-harm. Alternatively, if nervous or compulsive behaviors disrupt your ability to function at work or in social settings, you will also want to seek treatment.

Depression is an affective disorder like bipolar disorder or any other debilitating mental condition that can present a severe functional limitation and even pose a severe risk to your life. In addition to the fact that you will need medical documentation to build your case around applying for SSDI benefits, this treatment—such as therapy, medication, clinical assistance, or hospitalization—may help move your life back on the right track. In the meantime, you can file for SSDI benefits to cover your living expenses.