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Busting Myths About Mental Disorders and Social Security Disability

August 10, 2017

Myth #1: Disability recipients do not deserve their benefits. If the current administration in Washington gets the budget they have proposed, more than $72 billion will be cut from the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs over the next ten years, which will clearly hurt the nation’s most at-risk population—those disabled by mental disorders. In an attempt to justify these severe cuts, some politicians have been spinning myths about those who receive SSDI and SSI benefits. The most dangerous one is that these recipients do not legitimately deserve their benefits. Rand Paul, a Republican Senator from Kentucky, has falsely claimed that “over half the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts.”

But the facts tell a very different story. The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare points out that “nearly 25% of the nation’s 8 million SSDI recipients have a mental impairment as their primary diagnosis – or qualification – for benefits. They may suffer from a variety of disorders, including severe depression, anxiety, PTSD and intellectual impairment, which make it impossible for them to work or hold a job. Many of those deemed eligible for SSDI benefits because of mental disorders also suffer from related physical disabilities. The majority of these beneficiaries are over 50 years of age. These are some of the vulnerable people the Trump administration is targeting with budget cuts.”

The Atlantic (magazine) reports that “cutting [SSDI and SSI] is cutting benefits for millions of the most vulnerable Americans in terms of income, health, and political power. Many may believe the program will never apply to them, but [according to Social Security’s own actuarial data] there is a one-in-three chance a young person at the start of his or her career will die or qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance before reaching retirement age.”

Former Director of the National Economic Council Gene Sperling summed it up this way: “The Administration is already deploying selective—and often deceptive—facts to stigmatize and caricature both the Social Security Disability Insurance program and its recipients. This sort of framing justifies using Social Security as a piggy bank to raid in order to help offset tax cuts for top-earning Americans.”

The ARC (a not-for-profit organization that advocates for those with mental disorders) estimates that “946,000 beneficiaries could be booted off SSDI if the Trump budget cuts are enacted: that’s nearly one million mentally and physically impaired Americans deprived of minimal benefits to ‘keep a roof above their heads and food on the table’ in order to give the wealthy and big corporations a massive tax cut.”

Myth #2: SSDI recipients could simply just go to work.

Recently, Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and other individuals in the administration have insinuated that the disabled should just find jobs. Stacy Cloyd, Deputy Director of Government Affairs for the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR), explains why it’s so difficult for people with severe mental impairments to hold a job: “The symptoms of mental illness can make it difficult to concentrate on tasks, to routinely interact with customers and put on a friendly face, or handle changes in the workplace. Like people with physical disabilities, those struggling with mental disorders may need to miss an excessive amount of work for doctor’s appointments, hospitalizations, or because of side effects from medications.”

Myth #3: Social Security Disability is the fastest growing federal program.  This is false. In fact, a Los Angeles Times investigation reported that disability insurance rolls have actually been shrinking for years. “In 2014, disability enrollment peaked at 8.95 million disabled workers (plus another 1.98 million of their spouses and children),” the Times said. “By last December, [enrollment] had fallen to 8.81 million disabled workers, plus another 1.8 million family members.”

Myth #4: It is easy for those with a mental disorder to get disability benefits.  Having a severe mental disorder or physical impairment does not guarantee that an individual will be granted Social Security disability benefits. “The United States has one of the strictest federal disability standards in the world (only South Korea is more stringent),” says The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM). According to the Social Security Administration’s own statistics, only one in four SSDI applicants are actually approved for benefits. An applicant has to go through a five-step initial approval process to prove they have a severe impairment which prevents them from being able to work, and that proof has to include solid medical evidence.

At Nash Disability Law, we know that wait times for approvals and appeals can stretch into months and years. The national average case processing time is 573 days, and in Illinois it is even worse—588 days. This is just from the time a hearing is requested (much later than the date a person applied for benefits). “In case anyone doubts the severity of beneficiaries’ conditions, one in six men on SSDI die within 5 years of approval for benefits; for women, the figure is one in seven,” the NCPSSM reports.

While some fiscal conservatives and others perpetuate these and other myths to imply that people on disability are just scamming the system in order to avoid working, we at Nash Disability Law know the truth is far different. Attorney Tom Nash says, “I can tell you that given the choice between suffering from chronic mental or physical pain and collecting a paltry disability check, versus being free of pain and earning a living, the people our firm has represented in the Chicago area over the past 28 years would pick going to work.”