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Emotional illnesses and Social Security Disability

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Over 20 percent of Americans suffer from anxiety disorders classified as severe. Another 6.9 percent experience at least one major depressive order each year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. These emotional illnesses can be highly debilitating, and they may qualify for Social Security Disability benefits. However, establishing these illnesses can be difficult.

Unclear causes

Many emotional illnesses involve anxiety or depression. These illnesses may arise due to various external factors, including traumatic events, acute stress and chronic stress. Often, the underlying causes of emotional illnesses are not clear. This makes diagnosis and management difficult.

Victims may suffer from physical or cognitive issues, including panic attacks, sleep disturbances and inability to focus. They may also struggle to work with others or function in social settings. People with anxiety disorders may experience various disruptive symptoms, including nausea, dizziness and difficulty breathing.

These effects can make daily activities and gainful employment difficult or even impossible. Unfortunately, proving an emotional illness is disabling can be challenging.

Evaluating emotional illnesses

The Social Security Administration includes various depression- and anxiety-related disorders in its official book of impairments, Disability Evaluation Under Social Security. Recognized depressive disorders include clinical depression and bipolar disorder. Listed anxiety disorders include stress, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and certain phobias.

People who suffer from listed conditions and meet associated criteria can qualify for benefits for disability without further evaluation. To meet an impairment listing, an emotional illness must cause specified medically documented symptoms. It also must cause two of the following effects:


  • Inability to perform a full range of daily living activities

  • Challenges functioning appropriately in social settings

  • Difficulty focusing, finishing tasks or completing tasks in reasonable time

  • Escalating, repeated episodes of worsening symptoms


Emotional illnesses with listed symptoms may also qualify for benefits if they meet alternate criteria. Anxiety-related disorders must prevent the victim from functioning outside the home. Depressive disorders must last over two years and cause episodes of decompensation, inability to function without a supportive living arrangement or inability to adjust to changes in living circumstances.

Even if emotional illnesses do not meet these criteria, victims may still receive benefits. The SSA will consider the mental or physical limitations the illness causes. If these limitations prevent the victim from performing gainful work he or she is reasonably qualified for, the victim may receive a medical-vocational allowance.

Establishing the effects of emotional illness can be difficult. Applicants should provide a complete record of medical evaluations and treatments, along with statements from psychiatrists and other specialists. Applicants can also submit statements from friends, family or co-workers who have observed the impacts of the illness. Many victims can benefit from partnering with an attorney to improve the likelihood of claim approval.

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