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Major Depressive Disorder and Bipolar Disorder

People with one or more “mood disorders” which are so severe that those disorders interfere with their ability to productively function in the work place may qualify for Social Security Disability benefits. These disorders are typically called major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, a person who has “severe symptoms that interfere with [their] ability to work, sleep, study, eat, and enjoy life” may have major depression. The National Institute of Mental Health has identified “bipolar” disorder as “a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.” These types of mood disorders are forms of mental illness. Of the more than 10 million working-age adult disability beneficiaries covered under Social Security in 2007, 14.1%1 had as their disabling condition depression.

The Social Security Administration has a well-developed system in place to determine whether a person who has a mood disorder such as major depressive disorder qualifies under Social Security’s program rules. The system is contained in the Listings of Impairments [20 C.F.R. Appendix 1 to Subpart P of Part 404], Listing 12.04. The Listing focuses on 3 main elements. The first element is the actual diagnosis. That is, a person with a mood disorder must have clinically recognized signs and symptoms, which, in the opinion of a psychiatrist or psychologist, meets the diagnostic criteria for some form of depression and/or mania. The second element is the requirement that the depression be characterized by at least 4 of the following 9 psychological phenomena: 1.) a loss of interest in almost all activities; 2.) appetite disturbance with change in weight; 3.) sleep disturbance; 4.) psychomotor agitation or retardation; 5.) decreased energy; 6.) feelings of guilt or worthlessness: 7.) difficulty in thinking or in concentrating: 8.) thoughts of suicide; 9.) hallucinations, delusions, or paranoid thinking. On the mania side, the mania must be characterized by at least 3 or the following 8 phenomena: 1.) hyperactivity; 2.) pressure of speech; 3.) flight of ideas; 4.) inflated self-esteem; 5.) decreased need for sleep; 6.) easy distractibility; 7.) involvement in activity which has a high probability of painful consequences which are not recognized; 8.) hallucinations, delusions, or paranoid thinking. For bipolar disorder, the disorder must have a history of being both manic and depressive. The third element is that the mood disorder must have resulted in 2 of the following: marked restrictions in 1.) activities of daily living; 2.) maintaining social functioning; 3.) maintaining concentration, persistence or pace and/or repeated episodes of decompensation.

As shown by the Listing requirements above, the mere fact that a person has been diagnosed with major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder does not in itself insure a person will be awarded disability. Instead Social Security requires the major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder be of such a serious nature that the person is significantly impaired, so much so that it is very difficult for him/her to function within an employment environment. There is no way for certain for Social Security to know how a person’s mood disorder will impact the individual in the work place. So, Social Security requires that the psychological phenomena listed above be present. If those phenomena are present, then Social Security will assume that such a person cannot effectively function in the workplace and is therefore disabled. This assumption is made by Social Security without consideration of the person’s age, education or work experience.

If the depression or bipolar disorder is not severe enough to meet or equal Listing 12.4, it is still possible to obtain disability if the mental illness prevents the person from performing his/her work performed in the last 15 years and in considering the persons age, education and work experience, there is no other work which that person can perform.



1 Arif Mamun, Paul O’Leary, David C. Wittenburg and Jessie Gregory, Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 71, No. 3, 2011, Employment Among Social Security Disability Program Beneficiaries, 1996-2007, Table 1, Characteristics of Social Security Disability Beneficiaries 1996-2007.