man with schizoaffective disorderMental illness in America is on the rise, and the number of people with mental disorders who qualify for Social Security (SS) disability benefits has increased nearly two and a half times between 1987 and 2007. For children, mental illness is now the leading cause of disability. A 2001–2003 survey conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) found that nearly half of respondents surveyed met criteria defined by the American Psychiatric Association for at least one mental illness at some point in their lives.

While researchers don’t often know the causes of mental illness, they believe biological factors as well as psychological and environmental issues contribute to a disorder, rather than a deficiency in the person’s character or personality. When a person has a mental illness, the way he or she behaves, interacts in social situations, feels, and experiences environment often change in a way that may not be perceived as “normal.” People who suffer from schizoaffective disorder usually have symptoms of psychosis and repeated symptoms of mood disorders.

When a person has symptoms of schizoaffective disorder, they may:

  • Hear voices
  • Feel paranoid
  • Have bouts of depression
  • Experience hallucinations
  • Have sleep disorders
  • Suffer suicidal tendencies

They may also neglect their personal appearance, and if the symptoms become debilitating, they may not be able to work or handle the routine of daily life. People with other forms of mental illness may also be overwhelmed by their symptoms and unable to function well. If you want SS compensation for mental illness disabilities, hiring a disability attorney can be advantageous in working through the complicated application process.

How Social Security Uses Your RFC to Determine Eligibility for Benefits

The Social Security Administration (SSA) determines your ability to work by assessing cognitive, emotional, psychological, or psychiatric impairments. If you have a mental disorder and apply for benefits, the SSA will look at your residual functional capacity (RFC)—the most you can still do given the limitations of your disability. The focus of the evaluation is on your ability to handle and perform mental activities associated with the requirements of the job.

Additionally, the SSA looks at various areas of social and intellectual functioning to make a determination about the level of your abilities. These levels are:

  • Not significantly limited
  • Moderately limited
  • Markedly limited
  • Insufficient evidence

If the SSA finds you’re not significantly limited or moderately limited, you’ll likely have a challenge getting disability benefits. If the agency determines a moderately limited rating, it'll look at all unskilled jobs available that you might be able to do, not just jobs you’ve held prior to your disability. Only if the SSA rates you as markedly limited in at least one area—meaning you aren’t able to perform simple, unskilled work—will you be able to receive compensation.

Four Areas of Consideration When Determining Your Mental RFC

When the SSA determines your mental RFC, it assesses your ability to work and function in four major areas:

  • Social interactions. Because the ability to function socially is a critical component of many jobs, you need to be able to communicate and interact in a socially-acceptable manner. It’s also important that you have a general level of cleanliness and be able to handle yourself in social situations. If the SSA finds you’re markedly limited in your ability to work with others—unable to ask questions, receive feedback, or manage a job without displaying behaviors that would distract or detract from the work—then the agency determines you can’t perform unskilled work.
  • Memory and understanding. Most jobs require you to remember and follow instructions. If the SSA finds you’re moderately limited in understanding complicated instructions, the evaluation may be that you can’t perform semi-skilled work, but may be able to perform unskilled work. If the SSA determines that you're markedly limited in understanding directions or performing simple tasks, then it will likely assess that you can’t perform unskilled work.
  • Ability to demonstrate concentration. When determining your mental RFC, the SSA looks at your ability to focus on activities and interests. The agency calls this “concentration, persistence, and pace.” It shows your capacity to pay attention and present a concentration level that allows you to complete basic work tasks. The SSA will likely find that you’re markedly limited to perform unskilled work if you're:
  • Unable to maintain your routine without being supervised
  • Easily distracted
  • Can’t make simple decisions or stay on task
  • Can’t get to work on time
  • Adaptation. The SSA wants to see if you’re able to handle basic work stress and pressure that accompany a normal work environment. If you can’t respond to normal changes or ongoing and basic daily challenges, the SSA may find that you’re unable to perform unskilled work.

Our Team of Attorneys Can Help

If you or family members suffer from schizoaffective disorder or any type of mental illness, we’d like to talk to you about your eligibility for SS benefits. If your disorder makes it impossible to work or perform a daily routine, contact Cuddigan Law at (402) 933-5405  for a free evaluation of your claim.


Sean D. Cuddigan
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SSA and VA Disability Attorney in Omaha, Nebraska
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