Social Security Disability and Mental Illness

The situation

Millions of persons receiveĀ Social Security disability benefits. In fact, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more that 2.5 million new applications for such benefits are filed each year.

What, exactly, though, is “disability”? As defined by the Social Security Administration, a person who is not able to work over a year, or a person has a condition that is likely to result in death, may receive benefits.

Mental illness is often looked upon as a stigma, but both the person afflicted and by society at large. A mental illness, though, as well as a physical illness, can be disabling. Therefore, a person with a serious mental illness (for example, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, manic depression or brain disorder) is just as entitled to receive disability payments as a person with a serious physical illness. Getting such benefits, however, may be difficult.

Practical hints

First of all, even if you have a diagnosis such as “schizophrenia,” this does not automatically qualify you for benefits. The question then becomes, how severe is your illness? It is very helpful if you have written statements by family members and others which describe any social problems you are having (for example, difficulty handling money, inappropriate behavior, and the like). Here are some more practical hints:

  • Do not be afraid or ashamed that you are mentally ill, or that you are the relative of a mentally ill person. This is the first step to recovery or help.
  • Keep a record of everything (for example, names, addresses, phone numbers, dates of behavioral events, admission and discharge hospitalization dates, and conversations and conferences). Make copies of everything you mail, and keep all notices and letters you receive.
  • Be polite and to the point when you communicate with professionals and caregivers. Do not be intimidated, and do not be intimidating.
  • If you are helping a mentally ill person, try to make sure that the person is on the same page with you. Do not act against his or her wishes or at cross purposes unless absolutely necessary to obtain treatment or assistance.


Beyond the practical advice, you and your physicians will have to provide documentation of your impairments. The physician or psychologist who is treating you will need to provide a report of your mental health history, including examinations for mental status and psychological testing. This report should also include the following:

  • A description of your capacity to understand, to remember and carry out instructions, and to respond in an appropriate manner to situations at work.
  • Information about your medications, including their effectiveness and side effects.

Remember, mental health records often contain private information, but any and all information gathered by the Social Security Administration is confidential, is only seen by those evaluating your claims, and cannot be released without your written consent.


If you, or someone you know, are suffering from a mental illness, be assertive. You are not asking for a favor. You have paid, through your taxes, for these benefits. You are entitled to information, respect and courtesy.

Having an experienced Social Security attorney guide you through the process can make a big difference. Do not hesitate to contact one to help you to discover your legal rights and to help secure for you the assistance to which you are entitled.