Most people, including those who have been diagnosed bipolar, don’t like to think of themselves as disabled, especially given the fact that people with bipolar disorder often tend to be over achievers. During severe episodes of depression or mania, however, dealing with the illness can make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to hold down a job, at least until you’re able to achieve some mood stability.

During these often debilitating mood episodes, it doesn’t hurt to have some disability pay flowing your way – in the form of Social Security disability payments – to tide you over. You may wonder, however, whether you qualify for social security disability. Here’s the five-step process that the SSA uses to determine whether a person is disabled:

  1. You are working and earning more than $900 per month. If you are working and your earnings average more than $900 per month after allowable deductions, you generally will not be considered disabled. If you are not working, or are earning less than $900 per month, the SSA looks at your medical condition.
  2. Your medical condition is “severe.” For the SSA to consider you disabled, your impairment or combination of impairments must significantly limit your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities – such as walking, sitting, seeing, and remembering – for at least one year. If your medical condition is not that severe, you will not be considered disabled. If it is that severe, the SSA goes to the next step.
  3. Your medical condition is found on the Listing of Impairments. The SSA has a Listing of Impairments that describes medical conditions considered to be very severe. (Check out the sidebar following this list to find out what the SSA has to say about bipolar.) If your condition, based on your impairment or combination of impairments, is not on this list, the SSA then decides whether it is as severe as a condition that is on the list. If it is, then the SSA will decide that you are disabled. If it is not, the SSA prepares an assessment of what your medical condition still allows you to do and proceeds to the next step.
  4. You can do the work you did before. At this step, the SSA decides whether your medical condition prevents you from being able to do the work you did before you stopped working. If it does not, they will decide that you are not disabled. If it does, the SSA goes on to the next step.
  5. You can do any other type of work. If you cannot do the work you did in the past, the SSA looks at the evidence to see if you would be able to do other work. In this step, the SSA considers your medical condition and your age, education, past work experience, and any transferable skills you may have. If you cannot do other work, the SSA will decide that you are disabled. If you can do other work, the SSA will decide that you are not disabled.

From SSA’s Listing of Impairments: Mental Disorders (Adult), Affective Disorders

Affective disorders: 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.

The required level of severity for these disorders is met when the requirements in both A and B are satisfied, or when the requirements in C are satisfied.

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

  1. Depressive syndrome characterized by at least four of the following:a. Anhedonia or pervasive loss of interest in almost all activities; orb. Appetite disturbance with change in weight; or

    c. Sleep disturbance; or

    d. Psychomotor agitation or retardation; or

    e. Decreased energy; or

    f. Feelings of guilt or worthlessness; or

    g. Difficulty concentrating or thinking; or

    h. Thoughts of suicide; or

    i. Hallucinations, delusions, or paranoid thinking; or

  2. Manic syndrome characterized by at least three of the following:a. Hyperactivity; orb. Pressure of speech; or

    c. Flight of ideas; or

    d. Inflated self-esteem; or

    e. Decreased need for sleep; or

    f. Easy distractibility; or

    g. Involvement in activities that have a high probability of painful consequences which are not recognized; or

    h. Hallucinations, delusions or paranoid thinking; or

  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);
  4. AND

    B. Resulting in at least two of the following:

    1. Marked restriction of activities of daily living; or

    2. Marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning; or

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

    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; or

    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; or

    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.

To find out more about how the Social Security Administration determines who qualifies and does not qualify for disability, you can check out its publication 64-039: Disability Evaluation Under Social Security (also known as the Blue Book). This publication “has been specially prepared to provide physicians and other health professionals with an understanding of the disability programs administered by the Social Security Administration. It explains how each program works, and the kinds of information a health professional can furnish to help ensure sound and prompt decisions on disability claims.”

Information about how to apply for disability benefits is also available on the Internet at the following address: