Bipolar Disorder Articles and Stories -
Bipolar Disorder and Social Security Disability - Strategies for Winning
David Oliver

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By David Oliver
Published on 07/26/2009
Bipolar disorder has long been recognized by the Social Security Administration as a legitimate basis for the payment of disability benefits. If you are a disability claimant who has been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder symptoms, there are two ways

Bipolar disorder has long been recognized by the Social Security Administration as a legitimate basis for the payment of disability benefits. If you are a disability claimant who has been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder symptoms, there are two ways you should apply for benefits - and when you apply, you can and should use both arguments.

The '12.04 Listing Argument'

First, you should argue that your condition is so severe that it meets the 'listing' for bipolar disorder as defined by the Social Security Administration in Listing 12.04. In order to meet this listing, your treating doctor will have to provide support in the form of a written declaration that you regularly experience specific symptoms that result in 'marked' difficulties in mental functioning.

You can enlist your doctor’s help by printing out the 12.04 listing, taking it to your psychiatrist or psychologist and asking him to prepare a letter stating that you meet the listing. In the alternative, your disability lawyer may be able to provide your doctor with a checklist form that tracks the 12.04 listing.

You should be aware that Social Security is very demanding when it comes to approving a case based on the listing. All of the listings, including Listing 12.04, are designed to be difficult to meet and Social Security personnel are trained to look for very specific records and language in your doctor’s reports before they will approve a case based on the listing.

The Residual Functional Capacity Argument

The second, and more common method to win your case based on bi-polar disorder relies less on 'magic words' in your medical records and more on the work limitations that your doctor has identified.. Known as a 'residual functional capacity' or 'RFC' argument, you are basically asserting that because of your bi-polar condition, your capacity for work has been so reduced that you would not be able to perform even a simple, unskilled job five days a week, eight hours a day.

Focus on Specific Activity Limitations

The RFC argument requires that you focus on the specific limitations you would have functioning at a simple, unskilled, low stress job. In most cases involving bipolar disorder, the judge’s decision really boils down to his/her decision about whether you could hold down a simple, sit down type of job that requires no training, that allows you to sit, stand and adjust your position and is not production oriented and does not involve extensive interaction with others. Examples of these types of jobs include:

  • small parts assembler
  • ticket taker at a move theatre
  • surveillance system monitor
  • hand packer

In fact, in most hearings, the Judge will call a 'vocational expert' to testify about work you have done in the past and about simple, minimally demanding jobs that exist in the national economy.

Examples of Winning Work Limitations

Your RFC argument will have the best chance of success if you can identify specific work limitations that arise from your condition - or your medications - that would prevent you from getting through a workday. Because you may find it difficult to recognize changes or limitations in your own behavior, you may find it helpful to ask a friend or relative to help you identify behaviors or activities that might impact your capacity for work.

An excellent resource on the web for sufferers of bipolar disorder and their families is, a web web site that explains and discusses the financial, emotional, and physical health problems that arise from this mental health condition. In particular, the Articles/Stories section of contains a number of first person accounts by patients and their families that will help you spot activity limitations that you can use in pursuing your disability case. Some examples of limitations that many judges find compelling include:

  • your need to take frequent unscheduled breaks
  • you would likely miss three or more days of work per month
  • you would likely suffer 'decompensation' at work (i.e. emotional breakdown)
  • you would likely have problems getting along with co-workers or supervisors
  • you would not be able to follow simple instructions
  • your concentration and attention are 'severely' impaired

Note that this list of work limitations is just an example - you don’t need to show all of these work limitations to win your case.

An RFC argument is a legal argument and many of the terms that are used by Social Security have specific legal meanings. Examples of terms with special meaning include 'marked limitation,' 'substantial work,' 'decompensation,' 'frequent,' 'often,' and 'poor performance.' Because of the legal nature of this type of argument, you are well served by retaining the services of an experienced and capable Social Security disability lawyer. Conclusion - You Will Need Your Doctor’s Support

Social Security recognizes that claimants suffering with bi-polar disorder may meet the requirements for disability because of the severity of symptoms and the impact of those symptoms on the claimant’s ability to perform even basic work activities. A treating doctor or therapist who understands the 'big picture' about Social Security claims can be a big help to you in pursuing your claim. Recognize that many mental health professionals are reluctant to make a blanket statement that you are 'disabled.' Instead, when you apply for disability ask your doctor to help you by using Social Security’s listing language and by identifying specific activity limitations that apply to you.