How to Apply for Disability Benefits for Mental Disorders

Sometimes people just need a little help. If you can prove that you have a disability that prevents you from working, you may qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Social Security Income (SSI).

Types of Benefits

SSDI is a benefit which offers monthly payments that requires you to have had a steady work history over the past decade. You must have a disability and submit an application to the Social Security Administration (SSA). You must also currently be able to earn no more than $1,170 per month, and your condition must prevent you from working for a year–either the past year, or the foreseeable future. SSDI needs you to have earned 40 “work credits,” where you earn and pay taxes on a minimum of $1,260 per month. You can gather up to four work credits per year. Twenty of them must be earned in the decade before the disability was diagnosed. Younger claimants may qualify based on their parents’ work history.

SSI, on the other hand, is a needs-based program. To qualify, you may not own more than $2,000 in assets excluding your home and one vehicle worth $4,500 or less. If you’re married, you may own up to $3,000 in assets. Your income must be below a certain threshold depending on where you live.

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Credit to flickr.com user Jason Truscott. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Which Disabilities Are Accepted

The SSA publishes a “Blue Book” which describes the criteria required for disabilities to be accepted for benefits. Bipolar disorder and other mood disorders are part of this Blue Book, as well as schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, and intellectual disabilities, like autism. Unfortunately, illnesses like bipolar disorder or depression need a great deal of evidence to demonstrate that your condition impairs your ability to work, even after treatment.

Application Process

The process to apply for these benefits for a mental disorder is not that much different from applying for a physical disability. Your best bet in submitting an application is to visit your local SSA office. There, you can talk to a representative who will help you fill out the forms. If you’re not comfortable with talking to the representatives in person, you can call them. They will fill out the forms for you and send a medical release form for you to sign, along with a postage-paid envelope. They will also let you know what documents you need to send them in order to prove your disability, like medical records from up to a year before your disability diagnosis.

Medical Records

The SSA is obligated to help you find and submit all of your medical records, though if you submit them yourself, your case will be delayed less. List all of your treatment team and where they work on your application form, from counselors to psychiatrists. The SSA will have you sign an Authorization to Disclose Information (SSA-827) to obtain the required records from your providers. Your medical records should contain the results of any tests–like IQ tests in the case of intellectual disabilities–as well as treatment notes. Your doctor can also fill out an optional mental residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment form, which is the best thing you can do for your case, as it demonstrates your doctor’s opinion on whether or not you can function.

It is very important to provide evidence towards your disability, like diagnoses, treatment plans, prognoses, every medication tried, and how you responded to medication. In the best case scenario, your treatment notes will include details on how your disability impedes your ability to work.

ADLs

The representative will also have you fill out a survey about your “activities of daily living,” or ADL. The Function Report form (SSA-3373) makes you describe how your disorder impairs your daily life, including during social engagements, housework, shopping, transportation, and how you spend money. If you have trouble working with coworkers or following instructions, then you need to talk about that in your ADL.

Managing Expectations

Try not to get your hopes up that your initial claim will be approved. Over 60% of claims are denied at first, and over 80% of appeals are denied. That’s not to say you shouldn’t appeal! You definitely should. You may consider hiring a Social Security Disability lawyer to help you fill out your forms and represent you in your hearing with an Administrative Law Judge.

You can be disqualified from receiving benefits by not following your doctor’s treatment plan. It’s very important to take your medication and attend your talk therapy appointments during your application process.

Applying for disability benefits can be a daunting procedure, but it can be done. It takes effort and patience and communication with your treatment team. Make sure that you jump in feet first.

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How Privilege Affects Mental Healthcare

Like many people who celebrate Thanksgiving, I’m taking a hard look at what I should be grateful for. When I was young, my family was largely feast or famine. We survived multiple job losses, costly illnesses, and bankruptcies. In my teens, all seven of us lived in a trailer no bigger than 750 sq. ft. And I was always hungry.

Now, I am steeped in obscene amounts of privilege. I am white, and I hold two college degrees. Among other things, this means I have an easier time getting and taking medication. My nursing and Latin classes specifically enable me to understand medical terminology and the effects of medications on my body and brain. I am a very insistent advocate for my health.

I am also married to a partner with a steady, middle-class job, which means my anxiety about ending up homeless or going hungry now is largely irrational. We’ve only been married for five years, but he not only held my hand when I committed myself, but he puts up with my mood episodes today. We could still get divorced, as have so many others with bipolar. But we haven’t yet. We are very awkward when people ask about our married life, because we usually exist in a different bubble than they do.

Insurance Card
Credit to flickr photographer mtsofan. Used with permission.

My partner’s job has insurance. I can—and will—write a post on this benefit alone, because without it, I wouldn’t be writing this today. I’d be dead. My hospitalization four years ago cost $6638.61—and was completely covered. I was flabbergasted. We were newlyweds at the time, and would have been put into debt. Due to growing up having Medicaid or sometimes nothing at all, the feeling is still surreal.

Speaking of jobs, I am lucky enough to be self-employed while writing my book, which means I can have as many panic attacks as I need to have without getting fired.

I’ve been in therapy for years. I’ve also changed psychiatrists five times until I found one I liked. This process of doctor-finding is actually quite common, but we could afford the doctor’s visits, the pills, and the frequent blood draws to check for liver or thyroid damage, which means I was willing to invest in my health. And my nightly cocktail of medication—found through years of trial and error—actually works. There are side effects, of course, but as I understand it, they could be significantly worse.

And finally, I was able to keep my infant despite someone threatening to report me to Child Protective Services during my psychotic break.

Is my mental illness severe? Of course. But I am lucky, to an unrealistic extent. If I wasn’t covered by my partner’s insurance, I would have had go to work immediately after my breakdown to cover costs. If I hadn’t married him when I did, I would be living with my parents, homeless, or dead—and likely one of the latter. There are so many ifs, which terrifies me.

Mental stability—which should be a basic human right—is achieved only by those who can afford it.

Homeless and cold.
Credit to flickr photographer Ed Yourdon. Used with permission.

A disproportionate amount of the homeless are returning veterans, the mentally ill, or both. Would that more shelters could provide a secure environment and treatment for any atypical brain chemistries or traumas that they may have! I would happily part with my tax dollars to ensure that more people with schizophrenia have a chance to sleep in a warm bed rather than under a bridge. Ideally, they’d also have help moving on to more permanent housing and work.

The weeks leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas warm my heart, but not just because I’m looking forward to spending time with friends and family. The generous outpouring of help around this time is mind-boggling. But I feel I have a responsibility to use my privilege year-round to help others who are less fortunate. First, I’ll keep in mind how much I have.

What struggles have you survived? And what privileges may have helped you through them?

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