Is Bipolar Disorder a Qualified Condition for Disability?

Understanding Disability Benefits: SSDI and SSI

Bipolar disorder can be debilitating.
 Maskot / Maskot / Getty Images

If you struggle to maintain employment due to your bipolar disorder, it's important to understand your rights. Bipolar disorder is a qualified condition for disability, but that doesn't mean everyone with bipolar disorder is automatically granted supplemental security income (SSI) or disability payments. Explore who's eligible and how to make the most of what's offered to you.

Your Rights Under the ADA

Many people with bipolar disorder are able to maintain a job. Bipolar disorder is one of the many conditions covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This law is designed to protect people with disabilities from discrimination in hiring, job assignments, promotions, pay, firing, benefits, layoffs, and all other employment-related activities.

The ADA applies only to businesses with 15 or more employees. People with bipolar disorder may want to consider that when looking for employment or considering changing jobs.

Your spouse is also protected by the ADA. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that "The Act also makes it unlawful to discriminate against an applicant or employee, whether disabled or not, because of the individual's family, business, social or other relationship or association with an individual with a disability." For example, if your husband has bipolar disorder, you are protected if he requires emergency hospitalization and you must be away from work without warning because of this.

 The ADA is administered by the EEOC. 

Other employees may not understand the rights a person with bipolar disorder has under the ADA. Often people think of disability only as physical impairment. Everyone should learn how the law applies so they know why accommodations may be required.

Defining "Disability"

"Disability," in this context, is not related to Social Security Disability.

Rather than saying you can't work, it is saying that you have rights and protections on the job while you are able to handle the duties of the job with reasonable accommodation.

If it is determined that the disability causes an impairment that "substantially limits" the person's ability to handle "major life activities," the employer is obliged to follow the rules of the ADA in the way the affected person is treated. This means providing one or more "reasonable accommodations" to the disabled employee.

The limited or impaired major life activity can be one that occurs on or off the job. The ruling factor is that it affects some aspect of your on-the-job activities and that activity does not have to be doing the job. You must still be able to perform the duties of the job.

An example given by the EEOC was of a person whose medications caused dry mouth. He needed to drink something about once an hour because of this, but his employer's policy was that people could not have beverages at their desks and could only have two 15-minute breaks per day. It was reasonable to allow this man to have a beverage at his desk once an hour.

Common Exceptions

A workplace can deny accommodations for one of two reasons:

  1. The employer can show that making an accommodation would cause the company undue hardship, such as accommodations that are excessively costly, extensive, substantial or disruptive, or would fundamentally alter the nature or operation of the business. The size of the business, its financial resources, and other factors can be taken into account.
  2. The employee is deemed to be a direct threat to the health and safety of him/herself or others.

If accommodation is denied or employment is terminated for one of these reasons, or if you believe you have been discriminated against because of your condition, you can file a claim with the EEOC within 180 days of the denial/violation.

You can do this online or request an application from your nearest EEOC office. The employer must respond to that claim and defend why the accommodation was not made or why the employee posed a danger on the job.

Social Security

Bipolar disorder can interfere with an individual's functioning to the point that it's very difficult to get or maintain a job. Almost 45 percent of all successful applicants for social security have a mental health issue as one of several medical problems. 

The Social Security Administration has a very detailed listing of impairments which qualifies an individual for disability. Section 12 is specific to mental disorders; Section 12.04 addresses affective disorders such as bipolar disorder.

The above document states that affective disorders are “...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.”

Eligibility Guidelines

A person with a mental disorder is eligible for benefits when he or she meets either the requirements outlined in both sections A and B or those in section C (see below).

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

  1. Depressive syndrome characterized by at least four of the following:
    • Anhedonia or pervasive loss of interest in almost all activities
    • Appetite disturbance with change in weight
    • Sleep disturbance
    • Psychomotor agitation or retardation
    • Decreased energy
    • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
    • Difficulty concentrating or thinking
    • Thoughts of suicide
    • Hallucinations, delusions, or paranoid thinking
  2. Manic syndrome characterized by at least three of the following:
    • Hyperactivity
    • Pressure of speech
    • Flight of ideas
    • Inflated self-esteem
    • Decreased need for sleep
    • Easy distractibility
    • Involvement in activities that have a high probability of painful consequences which are not recognized
    • Hallucinations, delusions, or paranoid thinking
  3. Bipolar disorder 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).

B. Resulting in at least two of the following:

  • Marked restriction of activities of daily living
  • Marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning
  • Marked difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace
  • 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:

  • Repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration
  • 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
  • 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.

As you can see, Social Security has a lot of special rules that apply to mental health issues. If you decide to hire an attorney, be sure to talk to him/her about those rules.

However, Social Security is not always good about awarding disability benefits to people with serious mental health issues, and the initial applications are often rejected. For this reason, people with mental health issues and their advocates (knowledgeable psychiatrists, therapists, and attorneys) need to prepare and document their cases carefully and have persistence. Seek help in filing if needed—your doctor or support groups may recommend useful resources.

Requesting Accommodations

You'll most likely receive accommodations only if you ask for them. Your employer is not legally obligated to initiate the process or offer one. When asking, you don't have to disclose your condition. For example, you don't have to say "I'm requesting a leave of absence or accommodations because I have bipolar disorder." Instead, according to the EEOC, you can say something like "I'm having trouble getting to work on time because of the antidepressants I take." Such a statement legally obligates your employer to begin considering your request.

If needed, a family member, a member of your healthcare team, or another representative can request accommodations for you. In either scenario—whether you or someone else is making the request—you may be asked to provide proof and medical paperwork, so speak with your medical team in order to have that ready. They may also be able to help point you to resources if you run into any trouble.