What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder (BD) is a chronic mental illness associated with severely debilitating symptoms that can have life-long adverse effects on the patient’s mental and physical health, educational and occupational functional capacity, and interpersonal relationships. It is characterized by manic or depressive symptoms, which are interspersed by periods of relatively normal mood. [1]

People with bipolar disorder experience unusually intense emotion, changes in sleep patterns and activity levels and uncharacteristic behaviors – often without recognizing their likely or harmful or undesirable effects. [2]

Does bipolar disorder count as a disability?

The American Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a disability as something that causes a person physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. This definition can also include a person who has a history or record of such an impairment or who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. [3] 

Bipolar disorder is considered a disability under the ADA and the United States Society Security Administration (SSA). This is because it can, but not necessarily, affect your ability to maintain employment. The ADA ensures that people with disabilities do not suffer discrimination at work, so you cannot lose your job due to complications stemming from bipolar disorder. In addition, the SSA provides financial support if you have a disability that prevents you from being able to work.

If you are living with bipolar disorder and wish to apply for disability benefits from the SSA, you will need to provide details of your work history and current circumstances.

Can you work with bipolar disorder?

People with bipolar disorder are prevented from being discriminated against at work by the ADA. However, you must be able to do the core tasks that the job requires. You are, however, allowed to ask for accommodations, which are changes to the schedule or responsibilities that can make the job easier to perform. 

Examples of accommodations for bipolar disorder include:

  • A more flexible schedule
  • Extra breaks
  • A planner
  • Noise-canceling headphones
  • Job coaching
  • A support animal 

Whether or not you can work will depend on how severe your bipolar disorder is. Symptoms such as mood swings, hallucinations and trouble concentrating will make it harder to hold down employment.

Finding a job you love that makes you happy and motivates you to get up in the morning will go a long way in making it easier to keep. You should also ensure that you have a good support system in place.

How to apply for social security benefits with bipolar disorder

To receive disability benefits, either Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), you will need to provide evidence that the symptoms of your bipolar disorder are so severe that they prevent you from being able to work. The level of severity should be at a level at which you would be unable to perform a job on a consistent and regular basis. 

The symptoms of bipolar disorder must have lasted (or be expected to last) for at least a year, although they do not least every day of the month, just frequently enough to prevent you from working.

To qualify for disability benefits for bipolar disorder, you must have at least three of the following symptoms:

  • Trouble concentrating/keeping focus
  • Restlessness or agitation
  • Constantly changing ideas and thought patterns
  • Decreased need for sleep
  • Doing risky activities without acknowledgment of painful consequences
  • Fast or frenzied speech 

When applying for disability benefits, you will need a statement from your doctor or psychologist about the severity of your mental health condition. It is important that there is an explanation for the doctor’s opinion.

The SSA will also ask for your medical records. If they see that you have never been prescribed medication for your bipolar disorder, this could affect your claim as they may assume that your medical condition is mild and you can work. Alternatively, if you take medication, the SSA will use your records to determine if this medication is effective in controlling your symptoms or not (and, therefore, whether or not you are eligible for disability benefits).

Resources:

  1. McCormick U, Murray B, & McNew B.(2015). Diagnosis and treatment of patients with bipolar disorder: A review for advanced practice nurses. Journal of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, 27(9), 530-42. https://doi.org1002/2327-6924.12275 
  2. Bipolar Disorder. (n.d.) National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/bipolar-disorder
  3. A Guide to Disability Rights Laws. (2020).S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section.https://www.ada.gov/cguide.htm