Social Security Disability For Mental Illness in California

Recently, in a forum, an individual asked the question, 'What does it mean to be disabled when you are mentally ill?' And to that question, another individual responded with the following remarks, "If your doctor states that you are completely disabled, you will get benefits. But, you need to make sure your doctor gives you the right diagnosis. If you get diagnosed for just nerves, you probably will not get on. It needs to be for something like depression, or bipolar, or panic attacks to convince Social Security that you cannot work."

The individual who responded to the question inferred that there are certain pat diagnoses that will garner an approval for Social Security Disability. As a former disability examiner, I can speak from experience that there are no specific mental diagnoses that will actually guarantee an approval for disability.

Residual functional capacity is what an individual is able to do in spite of the limitations of their impairment or impairments. And Social Security Disability is based upon an individual's residual functional capacity rather than having specific medical or mental conditions.

Of course, it goes without saying that it is important, from a documentation standpoint, to have a medically determinable mental impairment. And since there are not too many mental health professionals treating patients on the basis of 'nerves', most individuals do receive a specific diagnosis of some kind.

The individual who responded to the question mentioned that a statement from your doctor would get your disability approved in California. Well, a statement from your treating mental professional can be helpful if it includes a diagnosis, prognosis, response to treatment, and what your functional limitations are. It does no good, however, to have your mental health professional just state that you are disabled. Your mental health treatment notes must substantiate your mental health professional's statements.

As I said before, Social Security is more interested in how your mental condition prevents you from being able to perform substantial work activity than what your specific diagnosis is.

Social Security Disability examiners make their determinations based upon your medical treatment notes, your residual functional capacity, the requirements of your past work, and your ability or inability to be trained in some type of other work.

Some individuals have mental conditions that are so severe that they meet or equal a mental impairment listing in the Social Security Disability handbook (a book that lists various impairments and the specific criteria needed to meet a listing -- sometimes this is referred to as the Social Security Disability list of impairments) or the blue book). If an individual meets or equals a listing they are an automatic approval for disability.

Although the individual who responded to the question ('What does it mean to be disabled when you are mentally ill?') above was correct in some of their answers, they were incorrect on others. Social Security Disability decisions are not about convincing a disability examiner to approve your claim; your disability claim must stand on its own merit. If the disability case evidence does not support a finding of disability under Social Security rules and guidelines your claim will be denied no matter what your specific diagnosis is, or for that matter what your physician's statement said.

About the Author: Tim Moore is a former Social Security Disability Examiner in North Carolina, has been interviewed by the NY Times and the LA Times on the disability system, and is an Accredited Disability Representative (ADR) in North Carolina. For assistance on a disability application or Appeal in NC, click here.

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