BiPolar Disorder and Social Security Benefits

Bipolar disorder is a lifelong mood disorder that causes extreme swings in mood — from manic highs to depressive lows. To be diagnosed with bipolar disorder you must have experienced a high period (mania or hypomania).

Most people with bipolar disorder experience more lows than highs. These lows are known as “bipolar depression.”

The symptoms of major depressive disorder are similar to the symptoms of bipolar depression, and many people with bipolar disorder are initially misdiagnosed with depression. Unfortunately, the diagnosis of bipolar disorder is frequently missed. The best way to make sure you get the treatment you need is to report all of your symptoms, including mania, to  your doctor.

  • In a national survey, more than two-thirds of people with bipolar disorder were originally misdiagnosed with other disorders.
  • Most people were misdiagnosed with with major depressive disorder.
  • And over one-third of people with bipolar disorder who were originally misdiagnosed waited 10 years or more before receiving an accurate diagnosis.

Once you are diagnosed with BiPolar disorder, it is important to get regular treatment, especially if you feel your BiPolarism makes you disabled and unable to work.

How Social Security looks at BiPolar:

Social Security follows a five-step process when evaluating claims for disability. If your BiPolar disorder is severe enough, you may qualify for benefits under step three, the listing of impairments.

The listing for BiPolar (12.04) requires that you have:

Depressive syndrome characterized by at least four of the following:
a. Anhedonia or pervasive loss of interest in almost all activities; or
b. 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.

Manic syndrome characterized by at least three of the following:
a. Hyperactivity; or
b. Pressure of speech; or
c. Flight of ideas; or
d. Inflated self-esteem; or
e. Decreased need for sleep; orf. 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

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);
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;
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.

How can I convince Social Security that I meet the listing for BiPolar?

  • The best way to do that is to get consistent treatment, even if you have to go to a community clinic,
  • And take the medications prescribed by your doctor.

This will help you win your case even if you don’t meet the requirements of the listing.

Frequently people with BiPolar disorder do not get treatment because they:

  • don’t like the way the medications make them feel, or
  • they haven’t found a good therapist or doctor, or
  • they cannot afford their medications.

 This can be very damaging to your case. Many Social Security judges take the view that if your symptoms are severe and you really are unable to work you would have sought treatment. Consistent treatment is the key to winning your case, whether or not you meet the requirements of the listing. If you cannot afford your medications, please see our list of sources for free medications.

If you do not qualify under step three, then it is up to you to prove that you are unable to do the work  you’ve done before and any other work that Social Security might think you can do.

See our discussion of the five-step evaluation process.



This blog is a public resource for general information. This blog and the materials provided in it have been prepared by Spencer Law Firm for informational purposes only and are not legal advice. No client or other reader should rely on, act on or refrain from acting based on information contained in this website without seeking appropriate legal or other professional advice.