Is Depression A Disability? Understanding Disability Determination

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) are government programs that provide supplemental income to workers who are ill or injured to the point that their condition is disabling. While depression is a covered condition in many cases, it does not always qualify as a disability. If you are considering looking into disability benefits or the legal label of a disability, it can be helpful to look at when depression is covered under the SSDI or SSI, the requirements for establishing a disability, and how to file a claim.

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Has depression impaired your ability to work?

Is depression a disability?

Depression is a serious mental health condition that affects approximately 21 million adults in the US. With symptoms that include fatigue, low mood, and lack of motivation, depressive disorders can make it difficult to function. Because of its prevalence and often-debilitating effects, depression is considered one of the most prominent causes of disability globally.

Disability benefits through the Social Security Administration (SSA)—via either Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI)—are available to people who have paid into the SSA system and experienced an injury or illness that keeps them from working. These benefits are specifically for disabilities expected to last at least one year. The Social Security Administration covers depression under the "mental disorders" section of its disability list. However, many factors determine whether an individual's depressive disorder will qualify as a disability. 

Depressive disorders considered a disability

Two primary depressive disorders often qualify for Social Security disability benefits. For you to claim that you have a disability, a doctor must diagnose you with one of these disorders, and you must receive treatment. Even if treatment is not ongoing or frequent, you must show that you have been diagnosed with one of these disorders and received care in the past.

Major depressive disorder

Major depressive disorder (MDD) is characterized by depression symptoms (low mood, fatigue, loss of interest, sleep disruptions, etc.) that—according to the National Institute of Mental Health—are present "most of the day, nearly every day, for at least two weeks."

For an illness to be considered a disability, it must severely impact your ability to function. Showing this level of impact after only two weeks may be difficult. If you are seeking disability benefits, you may be asked to establish that symptoms have persisted for much longer than two weeks. 

Persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia)

Persistent depressive disorder (PDD), also called dysthymia, is a condition where depressive symptoms last two years or more. For this diagnosis, symptoms must persist most of the day and be present more days than not. PDD is considered a more moderate form of depression that lasts longer than MDD. 


What are the requirements to establish depression as a disability? 

If you cannot work due to depression, specific criteria must be fulfilled for benefits to apply. It may not be easy to qualify, even if you are eligible for benefits. The following are requirements that are necessary for you to establish a disability.

A. Medical documentation of depressive disorder

Medical documentation of a depressive disorder can be obtained after you have been diagnosed and received treatment. Documentation can include medical records, test results, and statements from your psychiatrist, therapist, or anyone who treats your depression.

The medical documentation must show that you have at least five of the following symptoms:

  • Depressed mood
  • Loss of interest in daily activities
  • Loss of ability to perform routine tasks
  • Appetite changes 
  • Weight changes
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Increased physical agitation 
  • Irritability or anger 
  • Decreased levels of energy and physical movement
  • Difficulty with social functioning and social skills
  • Feelings of guilt 
  • Thoughts of worthlessness 
  • Difficulty concentrating or thinking
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. Support is available 24/7.

B. Limitations

To receive disability benefits, you must show that you have severe limitations that prevent you from working. This criterion can be fulfilled if you have either an "extreme limitation" of one or "marked limitation" of two of the following abilities:

  • Understanding, remembering, or applying information 
  • Interacting with people
  • Concentrating or maintaining pace
  • Adapting to surroundings or caring for yourself (such as practicing good hygiene)

An extreme limitation is one in which you cannot function in that area independently or consistently. A marked limitation is one in which your functioning in the area is severely limited. The Social Security Administration uses a rating scale and surveys to determine if a limitation is marked or extreme. These limitations are also applied to jobs you might be able to do. 

C. Ongoing treatment and marginal adjustment

If you cannot show that you have pervasive limitations, you can fulfill this criterion by proving that your depression is "serious and persistent." To do this, you may be asked to show that you've experienced ongoing treatment and difficulty adjusting to your surroundings or changing circumstances.  

How to apply for disability benefits

If you believe you meet all the criteria for a disability, you can begin the application process by filling out an online application on the SSA website. To qualify, you will need all the medical records you have available knowledge of when your symptoms began and the mental demands that your depression exacts on you. You may also need to include statements from your doctors, family relatives, social workers, supervisors, and co-workers with your form to provide further evidence of your disability and struggles with depression. Note that the application for SSDI can take years, especially if you go through an appeals process. 

Has depression impaired your ability to work?

Support options for depression 

Depression can be disabling for some people, even if they don't receive SSDI or SSI benefits. When your depression makes functioning challenging, leaving home to attend appointments with a therapist may be difficult. In these cases, online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp may be more convenient. 

An increasing amount of research suggests that online therapy can benefit those living with mental health challenges that may impair their ability to function at work. For example, in a study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, researchers looked at the effectiveness of online cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) in addressing symptoms of depression. Researchers in the study, which included results from over 1,200 individuals who had utilized online therapy, concluded that online therapy led to significant improvements in depression symptoms. These results were sustained at a six-month follow-up. 

Online therapy allows clients to connect with a therapist from the comfort of home (or wherever they have an internet connection), which can be helpful if depression makes certain daily functions difficult. With options like phone, video, or live chat sessions available, clients have control over where and how they receive treatment.  


Proving that your depression is a disability can be difficult. If you're unsure how to apply for disability benefits, it can be helpful to look through the SSA's website or consult a disability lawyer. If you're looking for support with severe depression, you can also contact a licensed therapist in your area or online for guidance.
Depression is treatable, and you're not alone
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