Will a Failure to Seek Treatment for My Mental Illness Hurt My Claim for Disability Benefits?
One factor that Social Security will consider if you apply for disability benefits is how closely you follow the treatments recommended by your doctors. In other words, if you claim that you are unable to work due to a particular medical condition, but you are not taking any medications prescribed by your doctor or otherwise heeding their professional advice, Social Security may cite that as evidence you are not actually disabled and still capable of working.
Ninth Circuit: “We Do Not Punish the Mentally Ill” for Their Condition
At the same time, there may be situations where it is improper for Social Security to make such an inference. A recent decision from the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Malkin v. Saul, provides a useful example. This case involves a female plaintiff from Hawaii who unsuccessfully applies for disability benefits.
Before a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ), the plaintiff testified that she was unable to work in large part due to her “significant anxiety and occasional panic attacks.” The ALJ discredited this testimony for several reasons. Among them was what the ALJ considered the plaintiff’s “failure to seek psychiatric treatment as recommended” by her treating physician.
But the Ninth Circuit said that was a legal error. While there are situations where an ALJ may discount a plaintiff’s testimony due to an “unexplained” failure to seek medical treatment, in this case there was an apparent reason–the plaintiff’s mental illness “made her afraid of taking new medications, being in unfamiliar places, and driving on freeways.” That is to say, the plaintiff’s mental illness posed a roadblock towards her seeking treatment for her mental illness.
In a 2014 case, another Ninth Circuit panel observed that “we do not punish the mentally ill for occasionally going off their medication when the record affords compelling reason to view such departures from prescribed treatment as part of claimants’ underlying mental afflictions.” The panel in this case followed that same line of reasoning. Here, the evidence showed the plaintiff’s failure to follow her doctor’s advice “was attributable to [her] anxiety,” and the ALJ should not have discounted her testimony on that basis.
Another problem cited by the Ninth Circuit was the ALJ’s “picking out a few isolated instances” from the plaintiff’s medical record that suggested “some improvement” in her condition, then using that cherry-picked data to conclude her mental illness symptoms were not that severe. What the records actually showed, the Court said, was that the plaintiff “continued to struggle with significant anxiety and occasional panic attacks” despite her ongoing treatment and occasional signs of improvement.
Speak with a National Disability Lawyer Today
Mental disorders often face unfairly heightened scrutiny from Social Security, where there is a tendency to think every applicant is simply making up or exaggerating their symptoms. That is why applicants need to carefully prepare and present all of their available medical evidence to an ALJ–and be prepared to appeal should the ALJ ignore that evidence.
National SSD eligibility lawyer Stephen Barszcz can provide you with guidance and representation in applying for disability benefits. Contact his office today at 877-655-2667 to schedule a consultation.