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Drug Abuse Does Not Disqualify Someone from Disability Benefits

 Posted on October 23, 2015 in Need to Apply for Social Security Disability

drug abuse, disability, Chicago Social Security Disability AttorneyDrug abuse is often a sign a person suffers from a serious mental disorder. While mental disabilities may qualify a person for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, officials are often too quick to dismiss applicants based on a record of drug abuse. But as a federal magistrate in Illinois recently noted, “recognizing the sometimes subtle distinction between applicants whose mental disorder causes the applicants to abuse drugs compared to applicants whose drug abuse triggers mental disorders can be difficult to discern at times.” Nevertheless, there are legal guidelines in place for making such distinctions and Social Security officials cannot simply ignore them.

The Role of “Decompensation” in Assessing Mental Disorders

Indeed, the magistrate quoted above chided Social Security for failing to properly review the claim of a woman who suffered from “severe mental health issues.” According to records, the applicant has been struggling with depression since childhood. She attempted to kill herself on at least five occasions and was hospitalized several times for “major depressive disorder” and drug abuse. Not only was she hospitalized six times over a two-year period, she was admitted to the hospital on the day her initial hearing before Social Security was scheduled.

Despite all this, a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) determined the woman was not disabled. Among other things, the ALJ said the applicant only suffered from one or two “episodes of decompensation,” suggesting her mental disabilities were not severe enough to prevent her from working. On appeal, the magistrate said the ALJ took “too narrow” a view of decompensation and remanded the case back to Social Security for reconsideration.

So, what is decompensation? Social Security's own regulations define it as “exacerbations or temporary increases in symptoms or signs accompanied by a loss of adaptive functioning, as manifested by difficulties in performing activities of daily living, maintaining social relationships, or maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace.” As the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees all disability cases from Illinois, explained in a 2010 decision, a decompensation incident may include, but is not limited to, hospitalization. For instance, a “significant alteration” of an applicant's medications might also qualify as an episode of decompensation.

In this case, the magistrate said the ALJ failed to properly address the applicant's decompensation, only dedicating three sentences in her opinion to the subject and concluding there were only “one or two” episodes. The magistrate said that was “insufficient.” In fact, the record suggested there were many more than one or two incidents that might qualify as decompensation episodes. For this, and other reasons, the magistrate held the applicant was entitled to a new hearing before Social Security.

Get Help from Our Social Security Attorneys

The magistrate in the case above hinted Social Security overlooked evidence of the applicant's mental disorders at least in part due to her prior drug abuse. This is not consistent with the law. Mental disorders often lead victims to “self-medicate” with alcohol, marijuana, or other narcotics. This does not automatically void their right to receive government benefits. If you or someone you know is unable to work due to serious mental health problems, it is important you seek assistance from a qualified Chicago Social Security Disability attorney. Contact the offices of Pearson Disability Law, LLC, today for an initial consultation.



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