Getting Social Security Disability for Depression

Winning a Social Security Disability (SSD) or SSI claim based upon depression can be tricky. Talking to your doctors about your problems caused by depression can be the key to winning or losing your case.

Let's discuss how Social Security evaluates disability applications. To simplify things a bit, there are essentially two types of disability cases: those that can be won on a "listing" and those that cannot.

Social Security Disability Listings

A listing is a description of a medical problem that is described in the regulations that govern Social Security. Winning a case based upon a listing usually means you have a problem that is relatively easily diagnosed and proven and that you have lots of medical records to show it. Not many people meet a listing because the requirements of most listings are difficult to meet.

The listings can still be complicated to read. For instance, the listing for depression and bi-polar disorder reads:

The required level of severity for these disorders is met when the requirements in both A and B are satisfied, or when the requirements in C are satisfied.

A. Medically documented persistence, either continuous or intermittent, of one of the following:

Depressive syndrome characterized by at least four of the following:

  • Anhedonia or pervasive loss of interest in almost all activities; or
  • Appetite disturbance with change in weight; or
  • Sleep disturbance; or
  • Psychomotor agitation or retardation; or
  • Decreased energy; or
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness; or
  • Difficulty concentrating or thinking; or
  • Thoughts of suicide; or
  • Hallucinations, delusions, or paranoid thinking.

Manic syndrome characterized by at least three of the following:

  • Hyperactivity; or
  • Pressure of speech; or
  • Flight of ideas; or
  • Inflated self-esteem; or
  • Decreased need for sleep; or
  • Easy distractibility; or
  • Involvement in activities that have a high probability of painful consequences which are not recognized; or
  • Hallucinations, delusions or paranoid thinking.

Bipolar syndrome with a history of episodic periods manifested by the full symptomatic picture of both manic and depressive syndromes (and currently characterized by either or both syndromes).


B. Resulting in at least two of the following:

  1. Marked restriction of activities of daily living; or
  2. Marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning; or
  3. Marked difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; or
  4. Repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration.


C. Medically documented history of a chronic affective disorder of at least 2 years' duration that has caused more than a minimal limitation of ability to do basic work activities, with symptoms or signs currently attenuated by medication or psychosocial support, and one of the following:

  1. Repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration; or
  2. A residual disease process that has resulted in such marginal adjustment that even a minimal increase in mental demands or change in the environment would be predicted to cause the individual to decompensate; or
  3. Current history of one or more years' inability to function outside a highly supportive living arrangement, with an indication of continued need for such an arrangement.

Because of these detailed requirements, meeting the listing for depression or biploar disorder is something that most people who suffer from depression or manic depression cannot do. That brings us to the other type of case, the more common type--disability claims that cannot be approved based upon a listing.

Effect of Depression on Your Capacity to Work

Social Security will assess your mental Residual Functional Capacity, which is just a big way of saying "what is it that this person can actually do?" If your depression limits your functioning so much that you can't remember simple instructions or concentrate on a task, there aren't any jobs you can do.

Many disability claimants make the mistake of only telling Social Security about what they see as their main problem. For most cases, you will need a lawyer to argue for you that it is a combination of problems that keep you from working. For instance, a problem with your back might keep you from working some types of jobs of heavy work, while your carpal tunnel syndrome would keep you from doing sedentary jobs. Likewise, depression and anxiety would keep you from working other types of jobs.

Because everybody experiences depression differently, it is that very important that you see a doctor, even if you feel like the doctor isn't really helping you. Some judges don't think disability applicants are believable if they say they are terribly depressed but aren't regularly seeing a doctor for it. Of course, most people just go to their family doctor and get a prescription for an anti-depressant and leave it at that. But if you are denied benefits, I suggest you use the time you will be waiting for a disability hearing (up to a year) to visit a psychiatrist regularly to develop your medical record for your hearing.