Social Security Disability for Panic Disorder & Agoraphobia

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Social Security Disability insurance helps those who can’t work or adequately support themselves due to impairment. The Social Security Administration recognizes that certain mental health problems, including panic disorders, qualify as impairments. SSDI isn’t needs-based. You must have worked long enough that you paid into Social Security sufficiently before you became disabled. (Reference 5) You’ll also have to prove to the Social Security Administration’s satisfaction that your condition disables you and this can sometimes require the help of an attorney.

The Nature of Panic Disorders

Panic disorders involve intense reactions, commonly called panic attacks, to certain stimuli. Attacks can include shortness of breath, a racing or palpitating heartbeat, cold sweats and other symptoms that may be unique to the person suffering from them. They can lead to phobias when your mind associates the reaction with the stimuli so you begin avoiding the stimuli in an effort to ward off the attacks. Agoraphobia is one such phobia -- it’s a fear of leaving home and being caught in places that might make it difficult or impossible to for you to escape to safety if a panic attack should occur. Some patients can cope by having a family member or trusted friend accompany them whenever they leave the house, someone who can help in the event of an attack. But working a job would most likely prove impossible even with this adjustment -- you can’t reasonably take a friend or family member to work every day.

Extent of Impairment

A panic disorder such as agoraphobia is a qualifying disability if it bars you from what the SSA calls “substantial gainful activity” or SGA. Your condition doesn’t allow you to work or contribute to your own support. If your career is such that you can work from home, suffering from agoraphobia probably wouldn’t entitle you to SSDI. If you must go outside the home to work, the extent of your impairment must still reach a certain level of severity to qualify you for SSDI. Although a few exceptions exist, this generally means that you have panic attacks at least once a week. The panic disorders must affect you socially, must prevent you from managing many of the normal tasks of everyday life and won’t allow you to hold a job.

Documentation of Impairment

Applying for SSDI involves a great deal more than simply telling the Social Security Administration that you’re impaired. You must see a medical professional for a diagnosis, and the SSA will often arrange for an independent mental health examination as well. Your doctor must document your condition, including details regarding when you experience attacks, what happens to you when they occur and how they limit you from engaging in substantial gainful activity. You can back up the doctor’s reports with testimonials from family and friends who have witnessed your suffering. It might also be helpful to gather employment records, such as if your last job was terminated because you couldn’t cope.

Lesser Impairment

Even if you fail the SGA test, there may still be hope. You can appeal the SSA’s decision based on the fact that you nonetheless don’t have sufficient residual functional capacity, or RFC, to hold a job. In other words, your case is borderline. If your disorder falls into this gray area, you may not succeed with a claim without professional legal help. You might be entitled to partial benefits called a medical-vocational allowance if you can prove that your condition narrows the types of work you can perform. For example, if you were a truck driver before becoming disabled and if traffic is your trigger, your panic disorder would prevent you from doing the work you’ve always done. In this case, you may not be able to support yourself doing anything else.


About the Author

Beverly Bird has been writing professionally for over 30 years. She is also a paralegal, specializing in areas of personal finance, bankruptcy and estate law. She writes as the tax expert for The Balance.

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