Bipolar Disorder and Depression: Should I Apply For Disability?

There is a lot of misinformation and relative stupidity surrounding Disability and Social Services in general. I’ve met people that view it as anything from a question of weakness and pride to validation of their being screwed up. And all of it is ridiculous to the point of stupidity.

So what is Disability? A quick Google Definition reveals the following:

any government system that provides monetary assistance to people with an inadequate or no income.

– (in the US) a federal insurance program that provides benefits to retired people and those who are unemployed or disabled.

And what is the government definition of Disabled? For that, let’s turn to the U.S. Department of Labor:

The term “disability” is defined by the federal government in various ways, depending on the context. For the purposes of federal disability nondiscrimination laws (such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Section 188 of the Workforce Investment Act), the definition of a person with a disability is typically defined as someone who (1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more “major life activities,” (2) has a record of such an impairment, or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment.

For purposes of Social Security disability benefits, a person with a disability must have a severe disability (or combination of disabilities) that has lasted, or is expected to last, at least 12 months or result in death, and which prevents working at a “substantial gainful activity” level. State vocational rehabilitation (VR) offices define a person with a disability to be eligible for VR services if he or she has a physical or mental impairment that constitutes or results in a “substantial impediment” to employment for the applicant.

So what does that mean?

Simply put, if a recurring physical or mental problem prevents “substantial gainful activity”, such as gainful employment since we all need to do it, you fall under the government definition of “disabled”. All people with Bipolar Disorder fall under this umbrella. All. Now, does that mean that you are eligible for benefits? No. It does mean you can invoke rights afforded to you by the Americans with Disabilities Act and other legislation dealing with people with disabilities.

Approval for benefits comes down to proving that your disability interferes with your ability to conduct at least one major activity, usually working. A recent discussion I had featured the common sentiment of “I’m too sick to work, but not sick enough for disability.” Wrong. If you are too sick to work due to a chronic or recurring condition, then you are “sick enough” for disability! What matters after that point is proving it to the SSA.

But my doctor, family, spouse, whoever tells me I’m not!

Let me again point you back to the legal definition of disabled – (1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more “major life activities,” (2) has a record of such an impairment, or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment. In addition to for purposes of Social Security disability benefits, a person with a disability must have a severe disability (or combination of disabilities) that has lasted, or is expected to last, at least 12 months or result in death, and which prevents working at a “substantial gainful activity” level.

Does your impairment meet these criteria? Do you swing up, work a job for a few weeks or a few months before your downswing destroys it all? Does your depression make it impossible for you to hold down a full-time job? Does your mental illness prevent you from interacting and participating in full-time employment? Does anxiety crush your ability to deal with the public or coworkers? Then you likely meet the legal criteria for being disabled and may have a case to make for disability benefits.

Here’s a good rule of thumb; before you take advice on a matter, have the person define what you’re asking about. If they can’t even tell you what the subject matter is, then how are they providing you meaningful, knowledgeable advice?

I know because I took the time to research it, talk to my attorney, and even spent time bullshitting with a Social Security employee to pick their brain on this subject.

Now, the matter of the doctor that says, “you don’t need it”, which is something I hear about on a regular basis. Simply put – do they actually know what they’re talking about? Remember, their opinions are based off of the information you’ve given them over the handful of hours you’ve interacted with them on a regular basis. They’re not with you 24-7 to see how your mental illness affects you specifically. Their opinions are based on the limited amount of information they have about your life, functionality, and their own knowledge and biases that may not be founded in your reality.

Furthermore, they’re operating off of the information that you give them. Are you giving them all of the right information for them to understand? Do you know every detail and nuance of what you experience to be able to relate it to your doctor?

I had two psychiatrists tell me I didn’t need Disability; even after explaining to them fucking up college and the 24+ jobs I’ve had since I graduated high school, being briefly homeless, and the chaos that was my personal life. You know who disagreed? The Judge that heard my case and approved my claim; which gave me the resources to get my shit together. I have no idea why those two psychs claimed that I couldn’t maintain gainful employment even though I had a 15 year history of not being able to maintain gainful employment.

Doctors aren’t lawyers. Their testimony isn’t the sole lynch-pin in approval or rejection. Their insight and input is one piece of the entire puzzle. It will not make or break your claim.

The Most Important Word

Proof. I bolded and italicized it for a reason. You need to prove that your medical condition prevents substantial gainful activity. Testimony is not proof. It is an opinion. A lot of the information you will provide to the SSA in the application process does not necessarily prove your claim. The more information that you can provide lends more weight to proving the claim. Disability is a government program and is wrapped up in just as much bullshit and red tape as any other government program. This is exactly why you should not listen to your doctor, parents, spouse, whoever.

My advice? Get a local disability lawyer. There are a lot of “national” chains that advertise on television and around the internet. Ignore that crap. You want someone close by who’s office you can actually go to if need be. They work on contingency, meaning they only get paid if you win your claim. Their fees will be a portion of whatever back award you are given. They should lay out how payment works before accepting you as a client.

There is, literally, nothing to lose by talking to a Disability attorney; other than back award money that you may not have been awarded to you without their help.

I spent 4 years in the system, with a mostly blank claim, for some reason, before I finally got smart and secured an attorney. I was too depressed and did not think I would ever get approved, so I did not advocate for myself. Most people will not take that long to get through the process. Average time is about a year at the moment.

Should You Apply For Social Security Disability?

Does your mental illness prevent you from maintaining long-term, consistent, full-time employment?

If the answer to that question is “yes”, then scoot on over to SSA.gov, make yourself an account, and start the application process. You will need your work history and medical history information; as well as names and phone numbers of facilities and medical professionals that have treated you.

If you get rejected, APPEAL. Always, always, always appeal until you are out of appeals. There’s like six levels of appeal, the final being going before a Judge to discuss your conditions and how it affects your life. That is the most likely time for a person with a mental illness to be approved because the step involves you actually discussing your life with someone instead of a person or committee analyzing the information you submitted.

It is MUCH harder to prove how a mental illness negatively affects your daily life through documentation; unlike something like a spinal injury which is clear. But you still want to build your case by providing every ounce of documentation relating to your diagnosis, treatment, and how it affects your life.

Your Life Does Not End With Disability

Disability is a resource. Some people need it for the rest of their lives, some people do not. In my case, I’m very much looking forward to transitioning off of it, hopefully within the next year or so. I’ve used the resources being approved for Disability opened up to me – additional funds and insurance – and worked to get my mental illness manageable.

People that are able to recover may be able to utilize government programs for rehabilitation to go to college or a trade school to actually have a career. Vocational Rehab may pay your way through school, assuming you meet the criteria for it. And if you get unwell in the future? Your prior approval basically lets you skate through the re-application process. You don’t have to go through all that again if you relapse.

Disability isn’t necessarily an end. It may be the beginning of a well, recovered life for you.

Don’t overlook it because some people don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.

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4 Responses to Bipolar Disorder and Depression: Should I Apply For Disability?

  1. Teri says:

    I’m taking a class for vocational rehabilitation and doing research for a paper. Your voc rehab post came up in a Google search and I spent about an hour reading your blog.
    I just want to say thanks for putting it out there. For having the courage to discuss mental illness and for taking the time to set up this blog and to write your ebook.
    Two thumbs up!

    • Dennis says:

      Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to comment, Teri. I’m pleased you found my body of work interesting! Good luck on the paper!

  2. Jen says:

    Thank you for this article and I’m sure the rest of your blog, as I will be reading more. I found it to be straight forward, informative, and above all, very encouraging.

    I am 28 years old and have struggled with depression, among other things, most of my life. I started a new job less than 2 months ago -one I had been waiting on for 6 months – and today I will be quitting because I am breaking down. I am incredibly disappointed with myself and feel I have let my family down again. My entire work history has been affected greatly by my “issues” and now that I’ve gotten older, and my parents who have supported me are aging, I think it’s time to face that reality. So I will be applying for disability benefits. Please wish me luck and thank you once again

    • Dennis says:

      Hello there. Thank you for the kind words and for taking the time to read my work. I sympathize with the situation you find yourself in. Most of my struggles with Bipolar Disorder have been on the Depressive end.

      Have you tried talking to your superior about your situation, see if there is any part-time solution so you can continue working? You are allowed to work while you’re on disability, you just can’t make more than $1100 a month at present. Even a part-time job of any sort can help you feel like you’re contributing and helping your parents as well. Your journey is not over! And Disability may be able to give you the resources you need to find stability and success.

      You’re welcome to reach out any time you need to if you’d like to pick my brain or have any questions. Feel free to leave me a comment or shoot me an email at dennis@bipolarmanifesto.com ; unless it is an emergency situation, in which case you should talk to local authorities.

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