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Is Depression a Disability?

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Depression is a prevalent and complex mental health condition that can cause great disruptions to everyday life. An estimated 3.8% of people experience depression, or approximately 280 million people worldwide. In 2019-2020, Mental Health America estimated that 20.78% of adults in the US were experiencing a mental illness (equivalent to over 50 million Americans), with almost a third of these reporting that they were not able to receive the treatment they need.

While feeling depressed at times is a normative part of life, struggling with major depressive disorder and its symptoms can be draining. There has been much discussion and debate over the years as to whether or not depression (and other mental health disorders) are medical conditions and can rise to the level of a disability, with considerable ramifications for the 1 in 5 adults who experience a mental illness in any given year—and the 1 in 20 with a serious mental illness, defined as a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder which results in serious impairment that interferes with major activities in life.

Struggling with major depression can be a tremendous challenge, and it takes courage to reach out for help. In today’s article, Clear Behavioral Health will look to explore the nature of depression and the profound impact it can have, along with investigating the broader question of whether major depressive disorder and other mental health conditions are considered to be medical conditions, diseases, and disabilities under the disabilities act.

What Is Depression?

Depression in the clinical context typically means more than just feeling down: it’s a multifaceted mental health disorder characterized by persistent, often overwhelming, feelings of sadness. It affects an individual’s thoughts, emotions, and physical well-being, decreasing your ability to function at work, at school, or at home. Depression can manifest itself differently from person to person, making it a highly individualized experience (e.g., some people will experience hypersomnia, or excessive sleep, whereas others may experience insomnia).

Similar to other mental health conditions, there are a few different types of depression that individuals may experience such as depressive disorder, major depressive disorder, and persistent depressive disorder, to name a few. While each type may vary in intensity, they all have similar symptoms. For example, individuals with major depressive disorder or persistent depressive disorder may both experience depressed mood, decreased executive functioning, weight sleep disturbance, and find it difficult to carry out essential functions.

One of the most common mental disorders in the US, an estimated 14.5 million adults over the age of 18 experienced at least one major depressive episode with severe impairment in 2021. According to the American Psychological Association, 1 in 6 people will have a major depressive episode at some point in their lives, with women more likely than men to experience one.

What Are the Symptoms of Depression?

Depression encompasses a wide range of symptoms, and not everyone will experience the same ones or to the same degree. Common depression symptoms include:

  • Persistent Sadness: A deep and often unrelenting feeling of sadness and depressed mood that persists over an extended period of time
  • Loss of Interest: A lack of interest or engagement in activities that were once enjoyable
  • Fatigue: Profound tiredness, which can be either physical and mental (or both), often leading to reduced energy levels
  • Sleep Disturbances: Changes in sleep patterns, including insomnia (difficulty falling or staying asleep) or hypersomnia (excessive sleep)
  • Changes in Appetite and Weight: Significant changes in appetite, leading to weight loss or weight gain
  • Difficulty Concentrating: Cognitive difficulties, such as trouble focusing, making decisions, or recalling information
  • Feelings of Guilt or Worthlessness: An overwhelming sense of guilt or feelings of worthlessness, often disproportionate to the situation at hand
  • Physical Symptoms: Some individuals may experience physical symptoms such as headaches, digestive problems, or unexplained aches and pains
  • Isolation: Withdrawal from social activities, reduced social interaction, and feelings of loneliness
  • Decreased cognitive functioning: In some cases, clinical depression can substantially limit mental functioning

Can Depression Be a Disability?

Whether or not depression qualifies as a disability depends on several factors, including the severity of symptoms and their impact on daily life. In many countries, including the United States, depression can be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While there is no official listing of the conditions accepted as disabilities under the ADA, the law does define a disability as a physical or mental impairment that limits one or more major life activities, all of which can be true in cases of severe depression. Along with the ADA, the Social Security Administration does consider depression as a disability if the individual meets certain criteria.

As such, individuals may have legal rights to reasonable accommodations and protections against discrimination due to suffering from depression (such as in the workplace).

How to Get Disability Benefits

When people think of disability benefits, it is common to associate them with financial assistance, however, that is not always the case. It is important to understand the different types of benefits that are available, and what you need to qualify.

FMLA for Mental Health Conditions

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in the United States permits eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year for specified family and medical reasons, which can include managing serious mental health conditions. For this leave to be compensated, you might be eligible for social security benefits or short-term disability, more on that below. To be eligible, employees must work for a covered employer and have worked at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months. When an individual is dealing with a serious mental health condition that incapacitates them or requires ongoing treatment or hospital care, they may qualify for FMLA leave. The condition typically needs to be verified by a healthcare provider, substantiating that it interferes with the individual’s ability to perform essential job functions.

Social Security Benefits

Under the Social Security Administration, there are three ways you can receive disability support which include Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), Supplemental Security Income, and Medicare. When it comes to depression, it is most common to access benefits through Social Security disability insurance that provides monthly income supplementation if you are unable to work due to depression. In order to qualify for disability benefits through Social Security, you must meet certain criteria and it can be helpful to seek assistance from a psychiatrist who can provide documentation to support that the illness is debilitating to the point it is getting in the way of your daily life. Some things you will need to qualify for Social Security benefits are medical documentation, and in some cases, documented history to provide evidence that your condition is serious and persistent.

Americans With Disabilities Act

As opposed to disability benefits under the SSA, you don’t have to apply for benefits under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). If you live with a qualifying medical condition that substantially limits your effectiveness in work duties such as clinical depression, or bipolar disorder then you are already protected under the ADA. While the ADA does not provide financial compensation, it does ensure you certain rights and protection from discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

Short-Term Disability Benefits

As part of a compensation package, some employers offer supplemental short-term disability benefits that are administered by a third party. If that is the case, you may not be able to qualify for Social Security benefits, however, these supplemental insurance policies may compensate you at a higher rate than Social Security. For more information, consult your employee packet or contact your HR department which will be able to break down your benefits.

Are Mental Health Disorders Considered Medical Conditions?

Mental health disorders, including depression, bipolar disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder, are also genuine medical conditions. Scientific research has demonstrated that these forms of mental illness have biological, genetic, and neurological underpinnings, and that they can cause significant changes in brain chemistry and overall functioning.

The Emotional and Physical Impact of Depression

Depression doesn’t just affect your mood—it can also have profound physical and emotional effects on your overall well-being and functioning:

Emotional Impact

Depression can make even the simplest tasks feel like insurmountable challenges. It creates a persistent feeling of sadness and hopelessness that can be all-encompassing, and individuals with depression may struggle to engage in activities they once enjoyed. This emotional burden can make it difficult to maintain relationships, perform at work or school, and maintain your sense of self-worth.

Physical Impact

The physical toll of depression is often underestimated and may sometimes go unreported. In addition to the psychological impact of depression, individuals may experience the following symptoms:

  • Fatigue: Profound and unrelenting tiredness that affects daily functioning
  • Sleep Disturbances: Changes in sleep patterns, including insomnia or oversleeping, which further exacerbate fatigue
  • Appetite and Weight Changes: Depression can affect appetite, leading to a significant loss or gain in body weight. These changes can have additional health implications
  • Aches and Pains: Many individuals with depression experience unexplained physical symptoms, such as headaches, backaches, and muscle pain
  • Chronic Health Issues: Long-term depression can contribute to the development or exacerbation of chronic health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and autoimmune disorders

What Should I Do If My Depression Is Preventing Me From Living Daily Life?

If depression is interfering with your ability to engage with the tasks of daily living and placing an extreme limitation on your quality of life, it’s important to consider several potential avenues for assistance:

  • Consult with a professional: Talk with a mental health professional, such as a therapist or psychiatrist, for a full evaluation. They can recommend treatment options that are specific to your unique needs.
  • Speak with your HR department: Every company has a different policy in regard to requesting time off due to a medical disability. It is best to be well-informed of the protocol to make sure that you are receiving the financial support you need to take time off work for depression. It is important to note that your employer has no right to ask you about the nature of your disability request – this is considered privileged medical information and you are entitled to take time off if signed off by a medical professional.
  • Build a Support System: Connect with friends and family members about your struggles. Isolation can be incredibly difficult to deal with when you’re depressed, and gaining the support of loved ones can be vital to the healing process.
  • Self-Care: Focus on self-care routines, including regular exercise, a balanced diet, and getting sufficient sleep.
  • Stay Informed: Educate yourself about depression and treatment options. Understanding your condition is a critical part of managing it effectively.

Get Help for Depression

If you or a loved one is struggling with depression, give our admissions team a call and we can walk you through your treatment options and the steps to go on disability for depression, or any other mental health condition. The intake process into our Virtual IOP program for mental health includes an appointment with a psychiatrist who will be able to complete any required documentation, ensuring a smooth transition from taking some time off, receiving treatment, and being able to get back to work again. With the right support and resources, individuals living with depression can find relief and regain control over their well-being. At Clear Behavioral Health, you can do it from the comfort of your own home!

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