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Is Bipolar Disorder a Qualified Condition for Disability?

Understanding Disability Benefits: SSDI and SSI

By Kimberly Read & Jonathan A. Abbott

Updated June 30, 2014

Bipolar disorder and Government Assistance
Peter Sherrard Collection/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images
What is the US Social Security Administration's position on granting Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to those with bipolar disorder?

Social Security does understand -- at least as far as one can tell by reading its rules -- that mental health issues can be very serious. Almost 45% of all successful applicants have a mental health issue as one of several medical problems. In more than 25% of all successful applicant cases, the most serious issue presented is related to mental health (Abbott).

The Social Security Administration has a very detailed Listing of Impairments which qualifies an individual for disability. Section 12 is specific to mental disorders; section 12.04 addresses affective disorders such as bipolar disorder.

The above document states that affective disorders are “...characterized by a disturbance of mood, accompanied by a full or partial manic or depressive syndrome. Mood refers to a prolonged emotion that colors the whole psychic life; it generally involves either depression or elation.”

A person with a mental disorder is eligible for benefits when he or she meets either the requirements outlined in both sections A and B, or those in section C (see below).

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

  1. Depressive syndrome characterized by at least four of the following:

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

  2. Manic syndrome characterized by at least three of the following:


  3. 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

  2. Marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning

  3. Marked difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace

  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

  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

  3. Current history of 1 or more years' inability to function outside a highly supportive living arrangement, with an indication of continued need for such an arrangement
As this indicates, Social Security has a lot of special rules that apply to mental health issues. When you come to hiring an attorney, be sure to talk to her/him about those rules. However, Social Security is not good about awarding disability benefits to people with serious mental health issues at the initial or reconsideration steps. For this reason, people with mental health issues and their advocates (knowledgeable psychiatrists, therapists and attorneys) need to prepare and document their cases carefully.

Understanding Disability Benefits – The Series

  1. I Can’t Hold a Job! What Do I Do? – Introduction
  2. What is Disability?
  3. Do I Qualify for Disability?
  4. Is Bipolar Disorder a Qualified Condition for Disability?
  5. How Do I Start My Disability Application?
  6. What Information and Paperwork Do I Need?
  7. What Happens with My Application?
  8. How Long Will It Take to Get Benefits?
  9. What Benefits Will I Get?
  10. Who Can Help Me?

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  2. Health
  3. Bipolar Disorder
  4. Legal Issues
  5. Disability
  6. Is Bipolar Disorder a Qualified Condition for Disability?

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