Schizophrenia is a mental health condition which causes an abnormal thought process altering one’s interpretation of reality. Schizophrenia can cause hallucinations (either visual or auditory), delusions, disorganized speech, abnormal motor behavior, and other abnormal behavior. Hallucinations involve seeing something or hearing something that isn’t there. The most common hallucinations I hear from my clients with schizophrenia is the visual hallucinations of seeing shadows in their peripheral vision, and the audio hallucination of a man or woman’s voice putting them down or insulting them. A delusion is a false belief. An example of a delusion is believing you are the President of the United States even though you are not, or believing a celebrity is in love with you even though you’ve never met. Disorganized speech results from a scattered thought process, which causes you to say things out of context in seemingly random fashion, making it hard to carry on conversation.
Severe Schizophrenic Symptoms Are More Likely to Receive Disability Benefits
The severity of schizophrenia varies from person to person. Generally speaking, only the cases with severe symptoms will result in Social Security disability. And the question is not how severe your condition may have been before you started on medication, or how severe your condition is when you go off your medication, but rather when you began taking your prescribed medication.
Some people with schizophrenia see a full resolution of their symptoms once they start anti-psychotic medications. Others find that medication use does not take away their symptoms completely. Some find that their condition is still quite severe despite the use of medications. It is this last category of people that are most likely to qualify for disability benefits due to a diagnosis of schizophrenia.
Getting Disability for Schizophrenia Requires Documentation of Medical Evidence
The primary way to qualify for disability for schizophrenia is to meet the requirement of Social Security’s Listing for the condition. The Listing for schizophrenia (Listing 12.03) requires medical documentation of delusions or hallucinations, disorganized thinking, or disorganized behavior. The Listing also requires severe limitations in the ability to understand information, interact with others, concentrate, or adapt and manage yourself. That’s a long way of saying that the condition must be severe and must severely impact your ability to function.
Social Security decision makers (including Administrative Law Judges) will look to your medical evidence to determine the severity of your condition. Medical evidence in schizophrenia cases is usually found in the treatment notes of mental health care professionals: therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and case managers from facilities specializing in mental health. It’s usually not enough to only have notes from a primary care doctor. It’s usually not enough if the only care you receive is emergency room care. In my experience, the only mental health cases that result in disability are ones where you are in active mental health treatment.
Schizoaffective Disorder Can Also Qualify for Disability Benefits
A similar condition that I see frequently is schizoaffective disorder. Although similar to Schizophrenia, there are key differences in this condition. Schizoaffective disorder is not only a thought disorder, but also a mood disorder. In addition to hallucinations or delusions, a person with schizoaffective disorder will also have depression and mania (similar to bipolar disorder). Although the diagnosis and treatment of schizoaffective disorder is difference from schizophrenia, Social Security actually looks at these conditions in the same way: they look at how severely the condition affects you. One diagnosis or the other is not more or less likely to result in disability benefits. The only measuring stick is severity.
Does Your Schizophrenia Prevent You from Working?
Another path to receiving disability benefits for Schizophrenia in the Adult Listings for Mental Disorders is if you have been treated effectively, and your schizophrenia has responded by having diminished symptoms, but you have a minimal capacity to adapt to new changes in your life that would create added stress, such as working. Some people find that through medication, therapy, or intense family support, that they are able to control their delusions and hallucinations. But if they undertake a new stressful endeavor like starting school or starting a new job, all the progress would be instantly lost and they revert back to their previous level of severity. This particular listing can be more difficult to prove, as the treatment notes will often indicate improvement, but won’t necessarily explain the fragile nature of that improvement. In these instances, a letter from your doctor or your therapist can be very helpful - explaining that you are unable to adapt to new changes or new demands in your life.
Meeting the listing is only one way to get approved for disability benefits. Schizophrenia doesn’t have to be totally disabling in order to help win a disability case. If you have multiple physical or mental health conditions, then a schizophrenia diagnosis, even if mild or moderate in severity, must be taken into consideration in combination with your other conditions to determine if you can work. For example, if you suffer from schizophrenia, you may not be able to interact with other people very easily due to your disorganized speech. Therefore, entire lines of work where you would interact with the public would be eliminated, such as working in a grocery store or a movie theater. Social Security doesn’t look at each condition in isolation, but rather looks at the total combined effect of all your conditions to determine if there is any work remaining that you can do.
Schizophrenia could also affect your ability to attend work regularly without an excessive amount of absences or time off task. For example, a person suffering from extreme delusions of persecution may not be able to leave their home on some days, and therefore need to take the day off. Employers will only tolerate so many absences before a person would be terminated. These types of difficulties sustaining full time work must be taken into consideration, and can be the basis for a finding of disability.
Let Our Social Security Attorneys Handle Your Case
In my experience, the best way to help your chances of success (other than hiring a lawyer who understands the law) is to make sure you stay engaged with treatment. This means attending your regular therapy sessions, keeping your medication management appointments with the doctor prescribing your medication, taking your medicine as prescribed, and abstaining from illegal drugs and excessive use of alcohol. As stated earlier, Social Security only considers the severity of your condition when following prescribed treatment, and that includes following your doctors instructions to stay away from illegal substances which may exacerbate your condition.
At Keller & Keller, we've been fighting for the rights of people just like you since 1936. We have the experience and knowledge needed to successfully manage your disability claim from the initial application, through appeals, and all the way to federal court. If you're ready to speak with a Social Security attorney about your situation, xcontact us today for a free, no-obligation consultation.