Mental health conditions can be just as disabling as physical ones
May 2023 is Mental Health Awareness Month across the country, as it has been for 74 years. It is an appropriate time to recognize and honor our clients who face with dignity and grace challenging symptoms from mental impairments.
Mental impairment may provide SSDI or SSI eligibility
Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is a federally funded and administered disability insurance program providing monthly payments to covered people whose severe medical impairments prevent them from working.
Social Security law is clear that SSDI disability may have either physical bases or mental bases – or both. The Social Security Administration (SSA) must consider the disabling impact of a claimant’s physical and/or mental medical conditions in combination. The person’s disability must be expected to either last at least one year or result in death.
Legal advocacy can be key to an SSDI disability claim based on mental health
An experienced lawyer who understands the intricacies of SSDI law and practice can be an effective advocate for an applicant with one or more mental health diagnoses for several reasons. Perhaps the biggest is that many mental health problems are invisible to the eye. While a claimant may exhibit related behaviors or have certain physical manifestations, the SSA staff may not have awareness of the impairment unless the claimant submits medical evidence in support.
Evidence of mental health symptoms
The SSA has a duty to develop the medical record, but sometimes the agency falls short when objective evidence is elusive. This is where an attorney can facilitate appropriate medical and other supporting evidence such as:
- Statements, letters or reports from treating doctors that explain a claimant’s mental health diagnoses and resulting symptoms that limit daily activities and work duties
- Medical records that may include practitioner’s notes about observations at appointments or detail what the patient has said. For example, does a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have severely reddened and cracked hands from compulsive hand washing? Does the person tell the doctor about flashbacks or panic attacks that interfere with normal activity? Do they fall asleep or avoid eye contact?
- Testing results like abnormal brain scans or IQ tests
- Affidavits from friends, former work colleagues or family members about their observations of the claimant’s symptoms such as panic attacks, sweating, agitation, excessive fatigue, difficulty completing tasks or planning, trouble with relationships, self-harm and many others depending on the disabilities involved
- Psychiatric medications used and resulting side effects
- Inpatient or outpatient treatment history
- And other kinds of evidence
Listing of disabling mental disorders
The SSA’s regulations provide that one basis for SSDI (or SSI) eligibility is to meet or equal a disorder in its official listing of disabling impairments. Each category requires specific diagnoses and symptoms for an automatic disability finding.
There is a comprehensive section of listed mental disorders, organized into 11 categories such as:
- Autism spectrum
- Trauma related
- Schizophrenia spectrum
- And others
Even if the person does not meet or equal a listing, eligibility can be based on other factors like residual functional capacity (what work duties a person can still perform despite their symptoms) –plus the vocational elements of age, work experience and education.
A lawyer can be valuable in cases that may not be straightforward. For example, the attorney can advocate that a person’s condition equals a listing or that the combination of impairments does so. For example, a claimant may have depression that interferes with concentration but that does not rise to the severity level of the listing. However, a physical injury that restricts the person to a sedentary or sitting job may in combination with the severe depression equal the disabling level of the listing.