Bipolar disorder can have a profound negative impact on a person’s life. But is this impact severe enough to qualify someone for legal protections and/or benefits? In other words, is bipolar a disability?
How Does Bipolar Disorder Affect People?
Before we delve into the question is bipolar a disability, let’s take a moment to discuss the ways that this disorder affects people’s lives.
Bipolar disorder actually refers to three distinct mental health conditions:
- Bipolar I disorder
- Bipolar II disorder
- Cyclothymic disorder
These disorders are differentiated by which of the following symptoms a person experiences:
- Manic episodes: These are periods of at least one week when the individual exhibits elevated energy and mood, talkativeness, enhanced self-esteem, an increase in goal-directed activities, and little need for sleep.
- Hypomanic episodes: These are similar to manic episodes, except they only last for four days.
- Major depressive episodes: These are characterized by low mood and energy, diminished self-esteem, pervasive sadness, disrupted sleep, abnormal appetite, and recurrent thoughts of death or dying. Major depressive episodes last for at least two weeks.
To be accurately diagnosed with bipolar I disorder, a person must have at least one manic episode. They may also have major depressive and/or hypomanic episodes, but these are not required for the diagnosis.
People who have bipolar II disorder must have at least one major depressive episode and at least one hypomanic episode.
An individual who has cyclothymic disorder will have symptoms of hypomania that don’t rise to the level of a full hypomanic episode, along with depressive symptoms that don’t meet the criteria for a major depressive disorder. These symptoms will occur over a two-year period (though there may be times when the person is symptom-free).
Is Bipolar a Disability?
The symptoms of bipolar disorder can clearly be disruptive. Depending on the duration and severity of symptoms, a person may find it extremely difficult to get and keep a job, do well in school, and maintain healthy relationships.
But are these disruptions intense enough to qualify as disabling? As we asked earlier in this post, is bipolar a disability?
This is a simple question. But the answer is a bit more complex.
Here are two reasons why this can be a challenging question to answer:
- Bipolar disorder affects different people in different ways. For some people, the symptoms of this disorder post significant obstacles. Others are better able to manage their symptoms and minimize their negative impact.
- The definition of disability can change depending on the context in which it is being used. This means that it is possible for a person to meet the criteria for being disabled in some circumstances, but not in others.
For the purposes of this post, we will address the status of bipolar disorder in the context of two legal areas: protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and qualification for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA).
Is Bipolar a Disability Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)?
Is bipolar a disability according to the Americans with Disabilities Act? Yes, if the person meets certain criteria.
The ADA, which became federal law in 1990, protects people from being discriminated against on the basis of a disability. The definition of disability as posted on the ADA website includes people who have “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”
The ADA’s protections are applicable in several areas of life, including:
- Public transit
- State and local government services
- Businesses that are open to the public
For example, if a person with bipolar disorder can perform the duties of a job with reasonable accommodations put into place, the ADA protects them from being denied employment, passed over for promotion, or fired because of their mental health condition.
However, if the requested accommodation places an unreasonable burden on the employer, the individual may not be fully protected.
Is Bipolar a Qualifying Disability for Social Security Benefits?
The Social Security Administration manages two types of disability-based benefits: Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
- SSDI benefits are for people who have paid into the system, usually via paycheck deductions. To qualify for SSDI benefits, you must meet certain work requirements.
- SSI benefits are based solely on financial need, regardless of a person’s employment background.
Both SSDI and SSI use the same criteria for determining if someone has a disability that would qualify them for benefits – and bipolar disorder is included in Section 12.04 of the list of qualifying conditions.
To apply for disability benefits, a person must provide medical documentation of their disorder. They may also need to prove that their struggles with bipolar disorder have caused them to experience “extreme limitation of one, or marked limitation of two” of the following capabilities:
- Understanding, remembering, or applying information
- Interacting with others
- Concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace
- Adapting or managing oneself
Please note that the information in this post is by no means a comprehensive summary of all the laws, policies, and regulations that can influence whether or not you receive the protections or benefits that you are seeking as a result of bipolar disorder.
Ensuring your ADA protections and applying for SSA disability benefits can be a complex, time-consuming process. But at least you can begin this process with the understanding that, in the eyes of both the ADA and the SSA, your struggles with bipolar disorder may qualify as a disability.
Begin Treatment for Bipolar Disorder in Atlanta, GA
Peachtree Wellness Solutions is a premier provider of customized residential and outpatient programming for adults who have bipolar disorder and other mental health concerns. If your life or the life of someone you care about has been disrupted by bipolar disorder, our team of skilled professionals is here to help.
To learn more or to schedule a free assessment, please visit our admissions page or call us today.