Wondering how hard it is to get disability with PTSD? People who go through a traumatic event — whether as a witness or victim — often suffer lingering aftereffects. Generally, that’s totally normal because anytime the body undergoes a flight-or-flight inducing incident, some shock and fear will result.
However, while people experience a wide range of emotions after trauma, most will recover from any initial symptoms with time. But, for some individuals, their memories instead worsen, leading to a consistent state of stress and fear. And these feelings of helplessness or horror are present for months/years, even when there is no longer imminent danger.
When this happens, it’s likely that the person is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). This is an anxiety disorder that arises from obsessive mental replaying or unhealthy suppression of an extremely distressing situation. Sadly, this condition often escalates to the point of interfering with a person’s current life, including their ability to work.
On that note, we recently had a reader write in with the following question: “Can I get disability for PTSD? There was a robbery at gunpoint in my store. Now I cannot walk into my old workplace, much less work there, because of my severe panic attacks. I’m not sure how long I will be this way, but I need medication just to leave my house.”
Because of the very real ramifications of this condition, yes, it is possible to get disability for PTSD. However, qualifying requires a lot of medical documentation, as well satisfying the financial requirements. Here’s what you need to know.
What Are the Symptoms of PTSD?
While many but not all traumatized people exhibit short-term signs of stress disorders, the majority don’t develop chronic PTSD. For those who do, however, it can be quite debilitating.
PTSD usually appears within months of a traumatic experience such as military combat, sexual assault, abuse, or natural disasters. Though, sometimes, symptoms may not show up until years later.
It is also important to note that PTSD not only results from witnessing or being thrust into a dangerous situation. Some highly emotional or stressful situations like the untimely death of a loved one may also serve as PTSD triggers.
For an official PTSD diagnosis, there are quite a few symptoms that must be present. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), a patient must have all the following for one month:
- At least one re-experiencing symptom. This could include flashbacks, bad dreams, or frightening thoughts.
- At least one avoidance symptom. This could mean staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the incident. It might also mean avoiding event-related thoughts, feelings, or actions (like driving if there was a car wreck).
- At least two arousal/reactivity symptoms. Arousal symptoms are usually constant rather than something that triggers. They may include things like irritability, angry outbursts, being easily startled, feeling constantly “on edge,” and difficulty sleeping.
- At least two cognition/mood symptoms. This category includes self-destructive thoughts, difficulty concentrating, inability to remember details (of the event or in general), and emotional numbness. Some people may also lose interest in enjoyable activities.
In addition to the above list, individuals with PTSD may also struggle with depression, substance abuse, and other anxiety disorders.
How Does Social Security Determine Disability for PTSD?
There are a couple ways an individual may qualify specifically for disability for PTSD.
The first is to satisfy the Social Security Administration (SSA) listing in its “Blue Book” of qualifying conditions. PTSD is in the Mental Disorders section, technically under section 12.15 Trauma- and stressor-related disorders.
To meet this requirement, an applicant must show both A and B, or both A and C.
A) The patient can show medical documentation for all the following:
- Exposure to actual threatened death, violence, or serious injury.
- Additional involuntary re-experiencing of the traumatic event.
- Avoidance of external reminders of the incident.
- Mood and behavioral disturbances.
- Increases in exaggerated reactions and arousal responses.
And the applicant must show:
B) Extreme limitation of one, or marked limitation of two of the following:
- Understanding, remembering, or applying information.
- Interacting with others.
- Concentrating, persisting, or staying on schedule.
- Adapting or managing oneself.
Or, the applicant must satisfy part C:
C) Their condition is “serious and persistent,” including medical proof of its existence for at least two years as well as:
- Proof of living in a highly protected or supervised situation or undergoing intense therapy.
- Evidence that there is “marginal adjustment.” This means the applicant has minimal capacity to adapt to new demands that aren’t already part of their daily life.
How Else Might Someone Qualify for Disability for PTSD?
If your condition doesn’t meet the criteria for the SSA listing, there is a second way in which to qualify. This is through something called Medical Vocational Allowance (MVA). But this angle is usually only successful when the applicant is over 50 years of age.
The reason MVA skews slightly older is because it’s based on Residual Functional Capacity (RFC). Basically, the SSA will once again review all medical records to see what a person can and cannot do. This includes the ability to work (or not) as a direct result of PTSD. They will also examine what type of work an applicant has done for the last 15 years. This will help them determine any current limitations for similar work.
Remember, SSDI claims are about work, not just mental distress. An applicant must show they’re unable to work for a year because of their condition before they’re even eligible. In 2023 they must also show they make less than $1,470 per month from Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA). And they must have enough work credits from previous jobs to qualify for benefits.
The SSA typically finds more potential job opportunities for younger applicants that they can still do even with their symptoms. This renders them unable to claim under the MVA status.
If, however, the SSA decides work will be too difficult for an applicant because of their diagnosis, treatment or progression, they’ll award benefits.
Younger applicants who don’t meet the PTSD criteria but are still struggling might explore other anxiety disorder listings. The inability to work still factors in, but they might be more successful satisfying the anxiety disorder or depression requirements.
What Must a Person Submit to Prove They Meet the SSA’s Disability Requirements?
An applicant will need to show medical records which may include doctor’s notes, treatment records, and prescriptions for medications. A mental health professional will also need to submit a Mental Residual Functional Capacity form attesting to the patient’s condition.
Additionally, it may help to include “third party statements” from former bosses, colleagues, and family members or friends. These “letters” should focus on their observations and interactions with the affected individual more than medical diagnoses. Remember, the goal of all of this is being able to show how PTSD renders the applicant incapable of working.
When to Get Legal Help
Though 7%-8% of the U.S. population will have PTSD at some point, proving it to the SSA is difficult. As you probably noticed while reading this article, there is a lot of paperwork and proof necessary to even file. And there are no guarantees that even the strongest cases will receive benefits.
What will help your chances, however, is meeting with a skilled disability attorney. They can help you compile all the required records and forms, all for no money upfront (these lawyers work on contingency). Plus, people with lawyers in these cases have a 3x better chance of a positive result on the first try. In other words, there is no reason not to at least remove that stress from your life.
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Kimberly Dawn Neumann
Kimberly Dawn Neumann is a multi-published NYC-based magazine and book writer whose work has appeared in a wide variety of publications ranging from Forbes to Cosmopolitan. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Maryland, College of Journalism. For more, visit: www.KDNeumann.com, Instagram @dancerscribe, and Twitter @KimberlyNeumann