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Social Security Disability Benefits for Mental Illness

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Obtaining Social Security disability benefits to treat mental illnesses is more difficult than it is for any physical ailments. This unfortunate reality is due to the nature of mental illness. Although apparent to the sufferer, a mental illness can be difficult for a third party, like a physician or Social Security Administration (SSA) application examiner, to assess and measure. Despite these challenges, Social Security disability benefits are still available for mental disorders. Similar to physical disabilities, a compensable mental disorder requires “documentation of a medically determinable impairment” that impairs the individual’s ability to work and has persisted for at least 12 months.

Mental Disorders Listed in Social Security's Blue Book

The SSA’s Blue Book contains a specific listing for mental disorders.  The listing includes nine different categories of common disorders, ranging from schizophrenia to autistic disorders to anxiety disorders. The listed disorders are considered “inherently disabling,” meaning that there would be a presumption that someone suffering is unable to work.

Each category contains detailed criteria that the applicant must meet to qualify. Generally, all categories require medical evidence showing the existence of the disorder as well as indicators of the severity of the disorder and its impact on the disabled individual’s ability to function and interact in daily life.  The exact evidence and requirements vary from one disability to the next.

Unlisted Mental Disorders

As with physical disabilities, even unlisted mental disabilities may be compensable if the applicant can prove the existence, duration, and impact on the ability to engage in substantially gainful employment.

Traumatic Brain Injury

One type of disability that has been in the news lately is traumatic brain injury (TBI).  Although not specifically listed in the blue book, traumatic brain injuries are frequently considered a compensable mental disability by the SSA.  They are typically evaluated under either listing 11, dealing with neurological disorders, or listing 12.02, dealing with organic mental disorders.  The categorization of a TBI is largely dependent on the symptoms; for example, if it causes seizures, listing 11 would be more appropriate, while for loss of function due to degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, listing 12.02 is more applicable.

The organic mental disorders listing places emphasis on an applicant’s premorbid IQ, which is the applicant’s IQ before the injury.  If an applicant’s IQ after injury measures at least 15 points lower than his or her premorbid IQ, the individual may be awarded disability benefits.  The major hurdle in the challenge with this type of benefit is that rarely anyone documents their IQ anymore, and therefore it is hard to determine a premorbid IQ after a traumatic brain injury.

For More Information

The above is just a general overview and is not a complete list of ways to receive Social Security benefits for mentally ill or mentally disabled applicants. The most important thing for applicants to remember is that the SSA’s evaluation is based on a comprehensive analysis of all presented evidence, and that the mere existence of the disability alone is not sufficient. For more information, please contact the lawyers at Whitcomb, Selinsky PC law firm or its sister firm, the  Rocky Mountain Disability Law Group.  Please call (303) 534-1958 or complete a contact form.

About the AuthorJoe Whitcomb

Joe Whitcomb is the founder and president of Whitcomb, Selinsky, PC (WSM). In addition, he manages the firm and heads up the Government Procurement and International Business Transactions Law sections. As a result of his military service as a U.S. Army Ranger and as a non-commissioned officer in the Air Force, he learned mission accomplishment. While serving in the Air Force, he earned his Bachelor’s in Social Sciences and a Master’s in International Relations. His Master’s emphasis was on National Security and International Political Economics. After his military career, Joe attended law school at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

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