This is a very broad
category that includes organic mental disorders; psychotic disorders;
affective disorders such as depression, mania and bipolar syndrome;
mental retardation; anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic
stress syndrome; somatoform disorders (persisting
physical symptoms for which there is no demonstrable organic
cause); personality disorders; substance addiction disorders;
and autism and other developmental disorders.
The evaluation of disability on the basis of mental disorders requires medical documentation establishing the diagnosis; consideration of the limitations it imposes on an individual's ability to function in the areas of daily living, social interaction and concentration, or the number and frequency of what SSA calls "episodes of decompensation" (temporary attacks of acute symptoms accompanied by the loss of adaptive functioning); and evidence that these limitations have lasted or are expected to last for at least 12 months.
It has been our experience that Social Security
does an unusually poor job evaluating disability claims based
on mental disorders. These disorders are among the most
frequently encountered in our practice. They are all capable
of producing symptoms that can significantly limit an individual's
ability to work, yet many people suffering from mental
illness are initially denied when they apply for disability benefits.
There are two things to bear in mind concerning claims based on mental disorders. First, it is difficult to prove the existence and severity of any mental disorder if a person is not receiving professional psychiatric or psychological treatment. The records of such treatment and the opinions of the treating psychiatrist (or psychologist) usually provide the best evidence of disability. Individuals suffering from mental illness who are not receiving appropriate treatment have a hard time qualifying for disability benefits.
The second point to bear in mind is that many of the symptoms of mental disorders can be effectively controlled with medication. To establish a disability claim based on mental illness, it is generally necessary to prove that an individual's symptoms have persisted despite treatment with medication. Mentally ill individuals who don't take their medication can expect to have trouble with the Social Security Administration.
A word about substance abuse: Social
Security will not award disability benefits to individuals whose
alcoholism or drug abuse is a contributing factor material to
their disability. However, benefits may be awarded in
cases where substance abuse is a symptom of an underlying mental
disorder that is disabling in and of itself. Benefits
may also be awarded based on physical problems, such as liver
damage, pancreatitis and neuropathy, that are the product of prolonged substance
abuse. In such cases, benefits are awarded only if the
limitations imposed by these mental or physical disorders are
disabling in and of themselves.