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Is Mental Illness a Disability?

July 21, 2023

7 min.

Although mental health might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about disabilities, it is possible for mental illnesses to cause disability. Here’s what you need to know about mental health and disability.

By: Ashley Laderer

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

Learn more about our Clinical Review Process


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Table of Contents

Although struggling with a mental health condition can feel extremely isolating, many people in the world struggle with their mental well-being. In fact, one out of eight people across the globe have a mental health disorder.

These conditions present in vastly different ways, and the severity of a disorder can vary greatly from person to person. As society continues to raise awareness surrounding mental health, an important question arises ––  are mental health disorders disabilities? The answer is not exactly black and white.

Here, we will dive into what it means to have a disability, what mental health conditions can cause disability, what benefits are available to disabled people, and more. 

Is mental health considered a disability?  

Before diving into this, it’s important to define what a disability actually is. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a disability is a condition (whether physical or mental) that makes it hard for people to do certain things or interact with others. 

There are three aspects of disability:

  1. Impairment: The significant differences in physical or mental structure or functioning that make it difficult for individuals to function in certain aspects of life. Impairments can be visible, such as a physical disability like an amputation, or more invisible, like a mental health disorder or chronic pain condition.
  2. Activity limitation: The difficulties a disabled person may have executing specific tasks or actions. These limitations directly result from their impairment and can vary from mild to severe.
  3. Participation restrictions: The impact of an impairment and activity limitation on an individual’s participation in various life situations, like work, school, or socializing. 
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Examples of specific areas of life that can be impacted by activity limitation and participation restrictions due to physical and mental disabilities include:

  • Learning and applying what one has learned
  • Task management 
  • The ability to move and get around 
  • Taking care of oneself 
  • Taking care of tasks around the house
  • Forming and maintaining relationships 
  • Being part of a community
  • Interacting with other people 
  • Employment
  • Schooling 
  • Taking care of finances 

While many people associate disabilities with conditions or situations that are outwardly visible, many disabilities are more “invisible” –– including mental health conditions. 

Mental health conditions can indeed be a disability since they can significantly impact a person’s ability to engage in daily activities, carry out tasks at work or school, and participate fully in society. However, it’s important to recognize that having a mental health disorder doesn’t automatically mean you have a disability –– but the specific way a mental health condition presents and impacts your life could make it a disability.

Many people can manage their mental health conditions with mental health treatment (such as therapy and psychiatric medication), social support, and coping strategies, allowing them to lead fulfilling lives without major activity limitations or participation restrictions –– which would mean they are not disabled.

The experience of mental illness varies greatly from person to person, even between people with the same mental health disorder. For example, one person with depression may be able to manage it with therapy and medications and still meet all of their responsibilities and maintain functioning.By contrast, another person with depression may experience significant impairments and limitations, even despite treatment, making it hard for them to take care of themself, work or go to school, and engage with other people. In this case, the first person would not be considered disabled, but the second person could be considered to have a disability. 

Which mental conditions can be considered a disability?

The United States Social Security Administration (SSA) recognizes 11 categories of mental health disorders that may result in disability, meaning someone may be potentially allowed to collect social security disability benefits. 

These categories are:

  1. Neurocognitive disorders
  2. Schizophrenia spectrum and psychotic disorders
  3. Depressive, bipolar, and related disorders
  4. Intellectual disorder
  5. Anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders
  6. Somatic symptom and related disorders
  7. Personality and impulse-control disorders
  8. Autism spectrum disorder 
  9. Neurodevelopmental disorders
  10. Eating disorders
  11. Trauma and stressor-related disorders

Again –– although these categories are all recognized as potential causes of disability, it does not guarantee that you will have a disability due to one of these conditions. 

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What are social security disability benefits?

For people with disabilities, the United States government offers two types of programs through the SSA –– Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). These programs are designed to provide financial support and stability for people who are unable to have a job due to a mental or physical disability (including severe mental health conditions). However, to get these benefits, you need to meet specific criteria determined by the government, with proof. 

Here’s a rundown of the differences between the two Social Security Administration offerings: 

Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (SSDI)

SSDI is financial assistance you can get if you aren’t currently able to work due to your disability. It lasts for at least one year. You can qualify for SSDI if the SSA deems that you have worked for a long enough duration of time and recently enough. Additionally, you’re required to have paid Social Security taxes while you were employed. 

If you qualify for SSDI and are married or have children, these family members will also be eligible for these benefits.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

The SSI involves two programs: one for adults and one for children under the age of 18. For an adult to qualify for SSI, they must be unable to work regularly and have low income and limited resources or assets. For a child to qualify for SSI, they must experience a significant impairment, and their family must be low-income, too. 

If you believe that you have a mental health disability, you can apply for these benefits. Your application needs to include all necessary information to prove your employment history and that your disorder is, in fact, disabling. Since the process can be tricky, it’s often recommended to work with an attorney with experience in this area to help you file your claim and ensure everything is in order to give you the best chances of qualifying for social security disability benefits. You can learn more about qualifications and applications here

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The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and mental health 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in the US in 1990 to ensure that disabled people are not discriminated against. It ensures that people with disabilities of all kinds are treated fairly and have equal access and opportunities in different areas of life, such as employment, education, public services, transportation, access to facilities, government participation, and more. The ADA recognizes both mental disability and physical disability. 

Here are some examples of how the ADA benefits people with mental health-related disabilities:

  • Workplace accommodations: The ADA requires businesses with at least 15 employees to provide accommodations to all employees with mental health disabilities. Workplace accommodations vary from person to person, but these accommodations could include flexible work hours, modified job tasks, or time off for mental health disorder-related leave.  Ultimately, the ADA allows people with mental health conditions to perform their jobs more effectively while also taking care of their well-being.
  • Education accommodations: The ADA mandates that schools (including colleges and universities) provide accommodations for students with mental health disabilities, such as a learning disability or mental disorder. This could include extended time for exams, more frequent breaks, or additional academic support. Educational accommodations help schools foster a more fair inclusive learning environment.
  • Reduced discrimination: The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating based on disability. This means employers legally can’t discriminate against qualified applicants with disabilities, including mental health disabilities, during the job application or interviewing process. This also provides protection in situations involving promotions, terminations, or pay changes.  

Celebrating Disability Pride

The Disability Pride Movement has been gaining momentum since the first celebration in July 2015 –– 25 years after the ADA was passed. Now, every July is Disability Pride Month.

Disability Pride is an empowering movement celebrating the identities, achievements, and resilience of disabled individuals –– a population of 1.3 billion people worldwide. It embraces physical disability and mental disability as aspects of human diversity. 

Disability Pride advocates fight for equal rights, access, and opportunities for people with disabilities. Additionally, the movement promotes self-acceptance, encouraging individuals to take pride in their unique abilities and to combat societal stigmas associated with disabilities.

Furthermore, embracing mental health as part of Disability Pride allows for open and honest discussions about mental health, promoting awareness, and breaking barriers that hinder people from getting help ––which can mean finding mental health treatment, seeking accommodations at work, or applying for Social Security benefits. 

By celebrating Disability Pride and acknowledging mental health conditions within the Disability Pride movement, we can work towards building a more inclusive world where everybody is valued and respected for their diverse experiences and perspectives.

Whether someone struggles with a disabling mental health condition (such as depression, bipolar disorder, or an anxiety disorder) or physical health condition –– all are welcome to celebrate Disability Pride. 

How Charlie Health can help

If you or someone you know is a teen or young adult struggling with their mental health, Charlie Health may be able to help.

Our virtual intensive outpatient program (IOP) provides personalized mental healthcare services for teens, young adults, and families dealing with various mental health concerns –– including moderate to severe conditions resulting in disability. 

In our program, every individual is matched with a therapist who meets their specific needs. Charlie Health participants are also connected with a group of peers facing similar mental health struggles.

Coping with mental health conditions and related disabilities isn’t always easy –– but we’re here to help, provide you with hope, and remind you that you’re not alone. 

Contact Charlie Health to learn more today.

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