is mental illness a disability

Mental illnesses can be debilitating and can render a person unable to work or earn an income. But is mental illness a disability? The answer depends on the details and context. Insurance sales professionals need to help their clients understand their risks and disability insurance coverage options.

Rates of Anxiety, Depression, Bipolar Disorder, and Other Mental Disorders

Mental illness impacts many Americans.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 21% of U.S. adults experienced mental illness in 2020 and 5.6% experienced a serious mental illness. Some types of mental illness are more common than others.

  • 1% experienced an anxiety disorder.
  • 4% experienced a major depressive episode.
  • 6% experienced post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • 8% experienced bipolar disorder.
  • 4% experienced borderline personality disorder.
  • 2% experienced obsessive compulsive disorder.
  • Less than 1% experienced schizophrenia.

Stress May Trigger Mental Illness

According to WebMD, some stress is normal, but frequent stress leads to an increased risk of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, psychosis, and other mental health conditions.

People who are overwhelmed with stress and cannot cope may experience a mental breakdown, also called a nervous breakdown. Mayo Clinic says this term isn’t used by mental health professionals anymore and doesn’t refer to a specific mental illness. However, when people are experiencing what’s colloquially called a nervous breakdown, they may be experiencing a mental health crisis that requires attention.

The Impact of Mental Disorders on Work

As there are many different mental disorders, symptoms vary significantly. However, the National Alliance on Mental Illness says some of the common signs of mental illness can include confusion, problems concentrating, irritability, changes in sleeping habits, feeling tired, overuse of alcohol or drugs, and an inability to carry out daily activities or handle routine problems.

It’s easy to see how these issues could make it impossible for someone to continue working. On top of dealing with the symptoms of mental illness, they also need to focus on treatment and recovery, which may not be possible while working a stressful job.

Mental Disorders as a Disability

Mental illnesses can qualify as a disability, and people with mental illness may have certain rights and protections under the law.

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 broadened the definition of disability to include people with psychiatric disabilities. A person with a mental illness that qualifies as a psychiatric disability is entitled to the workplace rights provided by the ADA.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says people with depression, PTSD, and other mental health conditions may be entitled to reasonable accommodations and are protected against discrimination or harassment based on their condition. An employer cannot fire someone for having a mental health condition.

Disability Benefits for Mental Illness

Mental illness may count as a disability in terms of the ADA and workplace protections. However, whether mental illness qualifies a person for disability benefits is another matter – and it can be complicated.

In some cases, a person’s job may cause or contribute to mental illness. For example, a person may experience PTSD as a result of something that happened at work or excessive workplace stress may trigger a mental health crisis. However, securing workers’ compensation for a mental illness is not always easy. State law impact whether a claim is successful. According to Insurance Business, claims may be decided on a case-by-case basis, but, in most states, employees will have to prove their work caused their mental health problems.

This is not always simple. If you broke your leg at work, it’s typically easy to prove this. If you’ve developed an anxiety or panic disorder, it can be difficult to prove that this was due to work conditions. As a result, people may not be able to access workers’ compensation benefits for mental health issues.

Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits for Mental Disorders

A mental health disorder may qualify a person for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits. However, no matter whether you’re applying for benefits due to a physical or mental illness, the eligibility rules are strict.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) says it does not provide temporary or partial disability benefits. To qualify for benefits, a person must have a medical condition that prevents them from doing the work they did in the past or from adjusting to new work and the condition must be expected to last for at least one year or result in death. Data shows that the SSA only approves about one in three applications. Furthermore, the average benefits are barely enough to keep the beneficiary above the poverty level.

If someone has a severe, long-lasting mental illness, they might qualify for a modest monthly disability benefit from the SSA. However, this likely won’t be a practical solution for many workers.

Private Disability Insurance Benefits for Mental Illness

Workers can also obtain private disability insurance. As private disability insurance companies provide these policies, the terms and conditions can vary. Among other things, the definition of disability and exclusions can change from one disability insurance policy to another.

Some individual disability insurance policies provide coverage for mental illnesses. However, not all do and some only provide limited coverage. You need to review the terms carefully to ensure a particular policy includes coverage for mental illnesses.

  • What is the definition of disability? Some policies use an own-occupation definition of disability that allows policyholders to claim benefits if they can no longer perform the duties of their job. Other policies use an any-occupation definition of disability that only provide benefits if policyholders are no longer able to perform any job they’re reasonably suited for, meaning policyholders won’t qualify for benefits if they can switch to a different (often lower-paying) job. These definitions can make a big difference in whether a person with a mental illness qualifies for mental health disability pay. Let’s say you have an extremely stressful, mentally demanding, high-stakes job. You cannot do your job because of a mental health crisis, but you could possibly hold a less stressful job. Whether you qualify for benefits will depend on the definition of disability in your policy.
  • What are the terms related to mental disorders, nervous disorders, or substance abuse disorders? Beyond the basic definition of disability, you also need to consider clauses that pertain to mental illnesses directly. Review the policy for riders that exclude coverage for these mental and substance abuse conditions. Also look for riders that limit coverage without excluding it entirely.

Protecting Your Clients Against the Financial Risk of Mental Illness

Many people may think they’ll never experience a mental illness, but the reality is one in five U.S. adults experiences some type of mental disorder.

Since compensation is not always available through the Social Security Administration or workers’ compensation, it’s smart to secure individual disability insurance. When you help your clients secure disability insurance coverage, consider whether the policy includes coverage for mental health illnesses.

For assistance finding disability insurance that covers mental illness as a disability, turn to Disability Insurance Services. Request a quote.

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