In a Social Security disability case involving depression, you need to prove one thing – that you are not able to work. If you remember nothing else about filing a Social Security disability case for severe depression, remember that your capacity for performing work is the only thing that matters to a Social Security judge.
Depression and Your Ability to Function at Work – the Main Disability Issue
Your underlying mental health condition – depression or any other medical or mental health condition, is only important to the Social Security Judge if your depressive symptoms limit you from performing a job 8 hours a day, five days a week. Thus, for example, I have won cases in the Atlanta hearing offices in which my client’s medical problem was a moderate, functional heart defect, but in this client’s case, her anxiety and depression about her condition was so severe that she could not concentrate at work. Similarly, I have seen judges deny cases in which a claimant had three herniated discs, but was able to function in a minimally demanding job because of an unusually high pain threshold.
In most cases involving depression and disability, the judge’s decision really boils down to his/her decision about whether you could hold down a simple, sit down type of job that requires no training, that allows you to sit, stand and adjust your position and is not production oriented and does not involve extensive interaction with others. Examples of these types of jobs include:
- small parts assembler
- ticket taker at a move theatre
- surveillance system monitor
- hand packer
In fact, in most hearings, the Judge will call a “vocational expert” to testify about work you have done in the past and about simple, minimally demanding jobs that exist in the national economy.
Comprehensive Mental Health Disability Records – a key to winning
In a disability case involving depression, my job is to identify psychological or psychiatric treatment and counseling records that suggest specific work limitations. In many cases this means I need to review all of the medical records, then create a mental functional capacity checklist that includes both the limitations associated with your particular case and the impairment categories used by the Social Security Administration. We then ask your doctor or counselor to complete the checklist for submission to the Judge. Note that we do not ask the doctor to decide if you are “disabled” – that is a legal decision for the Judge. Instead, we ask your doctor to help “translate” his findings into specific work limitations.
Often this process of identifying work activity limitations is actually easier in a mental health case than in a physical impairment case. Mental health professionals often develop a bond with their patients and truly understand the issues faced by a patient with severe depression. In addition, the published literature about depression and associated conditions often refers to the functional limitations associated with this condition. Dr. Ivan Goldberg, a New York City psychiatrist maintains Depression Central, the Internet’s most comprehensive resource site having to do with depression and you can use this site as your starting point for researching both the medical and vocational implications of depression.
Focus On Your Symptoms – How Does Your Depression Limit You from Working?
I find that it is important to focus on the specific symptoms arising from your depression that would impact your ability to work. In other words, why would you not be a reliable employee? Remember, judges see claimants every day complaining of depression, anxiety and chronic pain. From your judge’s perspective, the important depression related symptoms for Social Security disability purposes are factors that might cause you to miss time from work, have trouble concentrating or problems interacting with co-workers or supervisors. Judges are people, and they tend to discount non-specific complaints they hear again and again.
I recently ran across an interesting blog post from well known TV commentator Dick Cavett who has chronicled his own struggles with depression. Mr. Cavett writes:
if you’ve never had it you can never begin to imagine the depth of the ailment’s black despair. Do not ask the victim what he has to be depressed about. The malady doesn’t care if you’re broke and alone or successful and surrounded by a loving family. It does its democratic dirty work to your brain chemistry regardless of your “position.”
I include this quote because it reflects an important issue that sometimes arises at hearings – even thought Social Security judges ought to know better, sometimes you have to educate them about your condition – depression may be a function of some emotional or physical trauma, but then again, it may be a blood chemistry issue as Mr. Cavett so eloquently points out.
Many depressed patients get used to living with their symptoms and fail to mention all of them to their doctors or to the judge. One technique I recommend to my clients is to obtain a calendar and keep diary notes about how you feel and what symptoms you experience each day. Make lists. Ask for your spouse’s or children’s observations.
Depression medication side effects can also result in work activity limitations. If your psychotropic medications leave you tired, unable to concentrate and unable to remember, your ability to work at even a simple, unskilled job would likely be compromised.
Deciding on a start-date for your Depression Related Social Security Disability Claim
I also have found that many of my depression disability clients were ambitious and hardworking in their careers and jobs. Subconsciously or otherwise, many Judges realize that few claimants would trade the money and job satisfaction of a challenging career for the fixed income offered by Social Security disability. I therefore usually encourage my clients to testify about what they did before they stopped work, how they tried to hang on, even while fighting depression and mood swings, and how they would greatly prefer their former way of life.
You may also be able to “push back” the starting date for your benefit payments if your last few weeks or months of work were not in the nature of “competitive employment.” For example, if your boss allowed extra absences or changed your job description, the judge may find that you did not engage in competitive work activity. Similarly, if you previously applied for benefits, received a denial, then tried unsuccessfully to return to work, you may be eligible for months or years of past due benefits. Issue related to amending your onset date are beyond the scope of this article, but should be evaluated.
For more information about depression and Social Security disability, or about obtaining permission to reprint this article, contact Jonathan Ginsberg by email or by phone at 770-393-4985.
Depression Case Study #1 – 44 year old female with PTSD and chronic depression, along with documented neck and back pain
Depression Case Study #2 – 52 year old male who was poisoned and now has flashbacks and cognitive loss
Depression/Anxiety Case Study #3 – 32 year old female with history of long term sexual and emotional abuse as a child
Depression/PTSD Case Study #4 – a 38 year old female with history of childhood sexual abuse, and a diagnosis of fibromyalgia
Depression/Anxiety Case Study #5 – a 60 year old man who suffered financial ruin after great success, and ended up depressed and unable to concentrate or focus
Depression Case Study #6 – a 49 year old man who lost the use of his right arm in a car accident who has become depressed and preoccupied with guilt and worthlessness because he can no longer support his family
Depression Case Study #7 – a 42 year old male with HIV, who experiences severe migraines, gastric upset and has had multiple suicide attempts
Depression Case Study #8 – a 50 year old successful salesperson applies for a closed period of disability after missing two years of work due to severe depression
Depression Case Study #9 – a 47 year old female with mild to moderate arthritis, complicated by severe depression associated with the side effects of her medication and her inability to work to support her family.