How to Get a Higher VA Disability Rating for Depression

How to Get a Higher VA Disability Rating for Depression

As many as one in every three veterans suffer from depression, anxiety, adjustment disorder, PTSD, or other psychiatric disorder - two to three times more than the general population. Depression is a major cause of unemployability in the U.S., making VA disability compensation for depression extremely important.

A quick review of the VA disability ratings for depression and tips on how to get VA benefits for depression can ensure you receive the full benefits you deserve.

How Does the VA Rate Depression? 

The VA rates depression using the same general rating formula as all mental disorders, including anxiety, schizophrenia, psychosis, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and adjustment disorder. Instead of asking, “What is the veteran’s diagnosis?” the VA rating formula asks, “What is the level of occupational and social impairment?”

There are six possible VA ratings for depression:

What if you’re having difficulty maintaining employment, but aren’t sure if you have depression or PTSD? That’s fine. Most veterans aren’t medical experts. They aren’t required to know exactly what their mental health problem is.

This was made clear in the 2009 case, Clemens vs. Shinseki. In Clemens, a veteran made a claim for PTSD. Upon further examination, the doctors felt he didn’t have PTSD but another mental health problem. So, the VA denied his claim. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims reasoned that a veteran is not competent to narrow the scope of potential diagnoses. A veteran makes a claim based on the symptoms he's experiencing.

Since 2009, veterans can file a claim for benefits for one mental disorder, and later, if needed, they may expand and refine the scope of their claim by arguing that it's within the general intent of what they meant when they filed. A veteran claims depression based on a set of symptoms, social problems, and employment difficulties she is experiencing – not a diagnosis.

Once the VA has assigned a disability rating, you can determine the amount of monthly veterans’ disability compensation for depression you are eligible to receive. The higher the disability rating, the higher the compensation. According to the VA rating, monthly VA benefits for single veterans with depression who have no dependents are as follows:

  • 100% disability: $3,057.13/mo
  • 70% disability: $1,403.71/mo
  • 50% disability: $879.36/mo
  • 30% disability: $428.83/mo
  • 10% disability: $140.05/mo
  • 0% disability: $0.00/mo

VA disability benefits for depression are higher for veterans who are married, have children, or have other dependents.

How Does the VA Assign 100% Rating for Depression? 

Each VA rating for depression is assigned a list of symptoms, but how does the VA apply this disability rating system? Do they simply go through the list and check off how many symptoms you have?

The answer is No. In 2002, the Mauerhan Court stated that “it is not the symptoms but their effects that determines the level of impairment.” This means the VA Board must look at the entire picture of a veteran’s symptoms of depression - from time of claim  onward - and how those symptoms impact his or her work and social life.

For example, a veteran with a 50% rating for depression may be employed but lack a social life (except maybe a spouse). They may take lots of sick days because they just can't get motivated to go to work. A veteran with a 70% rating for depression might be able to get a job but has difficulty holding on to it. She might also have a spouse, but no real relationship other than living together.

In other words, veterans don’t have to have every single symptom listed in the VA’s General Rating Formula for Mental Disorders to qualify for a certain rating. Just because you don’t currently suffer from hallucinations or delusions doesn’t mean you aren’t 100% impaired by depression.

How Veterans Prove Service Connection for Depression

Service connection for depression can be direct or secondary. You might have developed symptoms of depression during active duty, or maybe you developed a medical condition on active duty that produced depression years later.

Unlike PTSD, a veteran doesn’t need some traumatic or stressful event that happened during service to have caused his depression. As long as you were fine when you went in, your military mental health screening upon enlistment showed no psychiatric illnesses, and there's no evidence that anything existed pre-service, the onset of any problems during service will be considered service-related.

In proving direct service-connection for depression, a veteran may have some early symptoms of depression or self-medicating behavior documented in his service treatment records or other service personnel file.

But people in service don’t usually go to the Medical Corp complaining of mental health symptoms. Unfortunately, the overall culture in the military is to appear tough and resilient. It tends to view complaints and concerns about mental health as a sign of weakness. So it's very rare to have complaints of symptoms of depression listed in service records.

Instead, service members use drugs or alcohol as a way of self-medicating. And records of this activity, including treatment records or disciplinary records, may provide evidence of service-related depression.

Still, the VA continues to deny claims of service connection for depression, arguing that the veteran never got treatment for or a diagnosis of depression during service. In these cases, veterans should dig deeper into what they may have done during service to mask their symptoms.

You can argue that the presence of alcohol symptoms, when none existed before, is a sign that you were dealing with mental stress and undiagnosed depression.

How Veterans Prove Secondary Service Connection for Depression 

Establishing secondary service connection for depression is more common. In this case, the veteran is service-connected for some other condition, a common one being some injury that causes chronic pain. Medical literature has shown time and again that patients with back problems, knee pain, foot problems, neck pain, or neurologic problems develop depression over time.

The scientific link between depression and pain is clear. The worse the pain, the worse the depression, and the more depressed a person feels, the more profound their experience of pain. Depression caused by chronic pain can quickly render one incapable of maintaining a gainful occupation.

Other medical conditions associated with depression include diabetes, obesity, hepatitis C, erectile dysfunction, irritable bowel syndrome (“IBS”), bladder impairments, vision loss, severe hearing loss, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and insomnia – to name a few. Many of these conditions can be caused by medications, Agent Orange exposure, traumatic brain injury (“TBI”), or other service-related incidents.

Not only do service-related injuries and illnesses lead to depression, but depression itself can cause physical illness. When a veteran is service-connected for depression, it’s important to remember that they may have a claim covering other, associated physical illnesses.

For example, many veterans who return home with depression experience disturbances in motivation and mood. Boredom, a lack of structure, and undefined goals can quickly lead to inactivity, alcoholism, and other unhealthy practices.

As a result, the veteran becomes unhealthy and overweight. He develops insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes. His diabetes then leads to diabetic complications like peripheral neuropathy, diabetic retinopathy, cardiovascular problems, hypertension, stroke, or sleep apnea. It becomes a cascading effect of health problems. 

A good veterans’ attorney is going to understand how a veteran’s mental health and physical health interconnect and is going to know how to apply the medical evidence and expert testimony needed to support your claim.

For instance, say you’ve made a claim for PTSD, but you can’t prove trauma occurred during service. An experienced veterans’ lawyer will know to look for other conditions. If you have a chronic back problem connected to service, your attorney will be able to recharacterize your claim as one for depression secondary to chronic pain.

We’ve had extensive experience with this. In one case, our client was claiming service connection for PTSD on the grounds that he witnessed somebody jump out of the second floor of a building during boot camp, landing on the sidewalk killing himself.

But the VA wanted casualty reports and other proof that the incident took place. We didn’t have that proof. So we came up with an alternative theory of rating this veteran.

I discovered that he had a claim pending for a back disability. We had good evidence in the service record that he had complained of a back problem during active duty, so I referred him to an expert neurosurgeon and psychiatrist.

That doctor supplied an opinion on the pathology of the spine disability and its connection to mental health problems. We were then able to establish that he was depressed, and that the depression was caused by the chronic back pain. We ended up getting the veteran close to $200,000 in retroactive benefits.

Had we continued to pursue the PTSD theory, we would have lost, and the veteran would not have had his $200,000 in his pocket.

Veteran Depression and Unemployability 

Depression, whether direct or secondary to a service-related condition, can quickly render a veteran completely and totally disabled.

If a veteran has service-connected disabilities that do not equal 100%, but they combine together to produce an inability to sustain gainful occupation, then the VA should rate them at 100% disability under the concept of total disability, individual unemployability or TDIU.

The VA often justifies denying benefits claims by saying if a veteran has a college education and reasonably skilled work history, he should be able to do a profitable desk job – even if he has difficulty walking or carrying heavy items.

Adding depression or anxiety to such a claim and getting that mental disorder rated allows you to show that – desk job or not - you don’t have the motivation to keep up the pace of a competitive work environment. Now, the VA can no longer argue that you should be able to work a sedentary job.

Similarly, certain physical and mental disabilities like diabetes and depression have been shown to affect cognitive function. In cases where a veteran has a limited education and work history, diabetes and depression could diminish the mental horsepower required to function at a level that's appropriate in a competitive work environment – a valid argument for a higher VA disability rating for depression.

Again, you don't have to prove that your depression was caused by any particular event to get VA benefits. With depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric illness, it's sufficient to merely show that (1) you were fine before service, and (2) you began exhibiting signs of depression during active duty, or a condition you obtained during service has caused you to develop depression.

You can learn more about getting VA benefits for depression in our free eBook, the Veterans Guide to Disability Benefits. Our Veterans’ Disability Benefits Law Firm specializes in handling difficult, hard to prove cases that have been on appeal for years. Contact us today at 888.878.9350 or Use This Online Form.

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Related topics: depression | disability rating | service connection (8)


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