Question of the Month: “Why is Social Security sending me to a mental health exam?”

January 10, 2022

In disability claims, if there is not sufficient medical evidence in your records to support your claim, or if the Social Security Administration (SSA) believes more information is needed, they may send you to a psychologist or psychiatrist for a mental status exam (MSE).

As you would expect, if you assert that a mental impairment is a factor in your disability claim, it is likely Social Security will ask for a psychological evaluation. But, you may be sent for an MSE even if you do not claim a mental issue as the basis for your disability claim. This can happen if in your application you mention depression or anxiety in your claim, or if your personal doctor has made even one single mention of depression or anxiety in their treatment notes. The SSA is required to investigate the potential for a claim based on a mental impairment if there is even the slightest indication that you may have a mental health condition.

“A request that you go for a mental status exam is not a bad thing,” says Nash Disability Law Attorney Dan Rosen. “It can be a good thing. The SSA is required to consider all your disabilities when you apply for benefits. A common myth about applying for Social Security Disability benefits is that an application can or should be only for one impairment or one type of impairment—physical or mental. This simply is not true. Other conditions like anxiety must be considered during a disability evaluation.” (See our blog article: Do Multiple Health Problems Increase Your Odds of Receiving Benefits?)

“Our advice,” Rosen counsels, “is not to be defensive or dismissive of your mental health impairments, or fear any type of stigma. These exams are routine. Each year thousands of disability applicants are sent for mental health exams by the SSA.”

Here’s what to expect at a mental status exam. The average exam will take from about 30 minutes to an hour. SSA mental health exams are conducted by a psychologist or psychiatrist and often the focus will be on your mental status, IQ, memory, and overall cognitive function, as well as your mood, mannerisms and concentration levels. While each exam is tailored to the individual, you can expect questions such as:

  • What are the symptoms that prevent you from working?
  • When did those symptoms start and how have impacted your life since they’ve progressed?
  • Have you ever received any treatment and are you currently taking any medications?
  • What are your typical daily activities?

The examiner may also ask questions you may find unusual as part of the mental status exam, such as asking the difference between a bush and a tree, or to name five large cities. These are fairly common questions.

Our advice is to be open and candid with the examiner. “Too many disability cases are lost due to pride,” Rosen observes. “Don’t minimize your conditions. But don’t exaggerate them either.” It is essential that you show up for the exam. Your disability claim may be denied if you miss your appointment.

Come prepared. Before your exam, review your symptoms and work history. Make a detailed list of your past jobs and make notes on what you struggled with—even those difficulties that may seem to be trivial. Ask a family member to help you detail what activities you struggle with performing on a regular basis due to your mental health, such as remembering items you need at the grocery store or what happened on a show you watched on TV.

Take a family member or another individual you trust with you to the exam. (They may not be allowed in the exam room with you especially with current COVID protocols, but regardless of this you must still participate in the exam.) Keep in mind that for all SSA mental health examinations, the medical examiner will be making observations about you throughout your appointment and may even include making notes of your demeanor while you are in the waiting room.

If you are applying for Social Security disability benefits, you are likely going to face an uphill battle to win compensation. That is why knowledgeable and skilled legal guidance is critically important. An easy way to get started is to contact Nash Disability Law for a free evaluation of your situation.