Substance use does not preclude benefits

Over 17 million Americans abuse alcohol, according to the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence. Another 20 million have taken illegal drugs in the past month. Sadly, many Illinois residents struggle with both substance use and disabling conditions. These people often believe they cannot qualify for Social Security Disability benefits. However, as any attorney Social Security can explain, substance use does not always prevent a person from collecting benefits.

Material factors

The use of various substances can affect a person’s disability claim. In addition to illicit drugs, the Social Security Administration may consider prescription drugs taken without medical cause. When evaluating claims involving substance use, the SSA must determine whether the substance use is a material factor contributing to the disability. To do so, the SSA evaluates the following variables:

  • Whether drug or alcohol use is the person’s only impairment. Benefits are not awarded if a person does not suffer from other disabling conditions.
  • Whether the substance use affects the person’s other impairments. Substance use may be considered a material factor if it worsens or contributes to the impairments.
  • Whether the combined effects of the substance abuse and impairments render the person disabled. If the person’s disabling medical condition would not be disabling in the absence of substance abuse, the person does not qualify for benefits.

The SSA can only consider how current substance use affects a person’s impairments. Past substance use cannot count against an SSD applicant. For example, if someone who uses alcohol develops liver damage, the way past alcohol use contributed to the condition cannot be taken into account. The SSA can only weigh the impact of ongoing alcohol use.

Considerations for applicants

Drug or alcohol use can complicate the disability evaluation process for various conditions. For example, understanding how substance use impacts mental illnesses, such as depression, can be difficult. Claimants should have a psychologist or psychiatrist describe in writing how the condition would affect the individual in the absence of substance use.

When evaluating claims, the SSA must project how severe a condition would be without substance use. These projections are not always accurate. Periods of sobriety can strengthen an applicant’s claim, as the effects of the impairment can be observed without the influence of drugs or alcohol.

The SSA may consider periods as short as 30 days as evidence. During these periods, it is important for the applicant to seek medical treatment and establish a record of the impairment and its effects.

SSD applicants should always provide honest information about their substance use. Credibility is decisive in disability claims, since many of an applicant’s symptoms and functional limitations may be self-reported. Applicants caught concealing substance abuse may lose needed credibility.