A person with mental health challenges can become too disabled to work.  Learn about SSI (Supplemental Security Income) and SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance), and how to apply for these benefits when you have a mental health-related disability.  Or, read the official Social Security Administration disability Red Book guide.

*NEW*Starting June 1, 2019, seniors and people with disabilities who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI)/State Supplementary Payment (SSP) will be allowed to receive CalFresh benefits.

Learn more in this Fact Sheet

What’s the Difference between SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) and SSI (Supplemental Security Income)?

(*Excerpted from www.ssa.gov)

The Social Security Administration (SSA) manages the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs. However, while both of these programs offer cash benefits for individuals who are blind or have a disability (including “mental disabilities”), the financial eligibility requirements for each are very different.

Topics covered here:

  1. What is SSDI
  2. What is SSI
  3. How to Apply for SSI or SSDI
  4. Tips on SSI/SSDI Applications and Appeals for Mental Disabilities
  5. SSI or SSDI Legal Aid

Click on the text bars below to know about each topics:

Social Security Disability Insurance is funded through payroll taxes. SSDI recipients have worked for a certain number of years and have made contributions to the Social Security trust fund. SSDI candidates must be younger than 65 and have earned a certain number of “work credits.” After receiving SSDI for two years, a person who is blind or has a disability will become automatically eligible for Medicare.

Under SSDI, the spouse and children of a person with a disability are eligible to receive partial dependent benefits, called auxiliary benefits. However, only adults over the age of 18 can receive the SSDI disability benefit.

Social Security disability benefits are paid after you have been disabled continuously throughout a period of five full calendar months. Disability benefits are paid beginning with the sixth full month after the date your disability began.  You are not entitled to benefits for any month during this five-month waiting period. The amount of the monthly benefit after the waiting period is based upon your earnings record, much like the Social Security retirement benefit.
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Supplemental Security Income is a program that is strictly need-based, according to income and assets, and is funded by general fund taxes. To meet the SSI income requirements, you must have limited income and resources.

An adult or child who is blind or has a disability must meet all of the following requirements:

  • Have limited income;
  • Have limited resources;
  • Be a U.S. citizen or national or in one of certain categories of aliens; and
  • Live in the United States or Northern Mariana Islands.

The monthly payment is based strictly on financial need and varies up to the maximum federal benefit rate. Some states add money to federal SSI payments. Approval for benefits generally takes three to six months. Once you are approved for SSI, you will get benefits retroactive to the date of your application.

If you are blind or have a disability, which prevents you from working, and you appear to meet all other eligibility requirements, it is possible to get SSI earlier. Sometimes on the day you apply.

In most states, beneficiaries are automatically eligible for Medicaid (called Medi-Cal in California).

* Learn more about the SSI and SSDI benefits.
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  • Call Social Security at 1-800-772-1213, toll-free from 7AM to 7PM, Monday to Friday: ,  If you are deaf or hard of hearing, you can call us at TTY 1-800-325-0778.
  • Apply online with Social Security
  • Visit your local Social Security office. (Call first to make an appointment.)

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Applying for SSI and SSDI can be difficult due to how long a claim can take and the high chance of being denied. Statistically, 70% of all SSDI and SSI claims are denied after the initial application. But applicants who are denied can and often should file an appeal. What does this mean for SSD and SSI applicants who are disabled and need help? That they should follow this advice: learn everything you can about the approval system to better your chances of winning your initial claim, or on appeal, with or without the help of a disability attorney or lawyer.

Also, here are two online information web sites that offer useful advice on SSI/SSDI:

  • The consumer legal advice organization NOLO hosts a website called Disability Secrets, which states it “has information that is typically impossible to get from the representative taking your claim for SSDI and SSI benefits”.  It can help to visit this site before submitting a disability claim, and certainly if you have been denied and wish to appeal.  You may also want to hire an attorney who specializes in disability law.  (Note: Disability lawyers should normally charge you only if you win your SSI or SSDI claim).  Remember, you do not have to give up if your initial claim is denied!
  • The Social Security Disability Resource Center, a web site authored by a former Disability Claims Representative, contains plenty of practical information and advice on all aspects of applying for SSI and SSDI, including a section on “Mental Disability Benefits“.

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If you are denied SSI or SSDI, or you believe your benefits have been unlawfully terminated, you can contact the following agencies:

Law Foundation of Silicon Valley – Health/Mental Health Program – Telephone: 408-280-2420
Address: 152 North Third Street, 3rd Floor, San Jose, CA  95112 (*Note:  Due to Covid-19, the office is temporarily closed, so call phone number)
Health/Mental Health Program provides free legal services to any individual who lives in Santa Clara County and who identifies as having a mental health or a developmental disability, or live with HIV/AIDS. Services available in Spanish and Vietnamese. The Mental Health Program can assist with:

  • Public benefits, i.e. denials, overpayments and terminations of SSI/SSDI, Medi-Cal, Medicare, CalWORKs, CalFresh, CAPI, General Assistance, and Veterans’ benefits
  • Reasonable accommodations to accessing benefits
  • Name and gender changes
  • Disability discharge of student loans
  • Unemployment Insurance
  • State Disability Insurance
  • Estate planning services
  • Patients rights in inpatient psychiatric facilities
  • Mental health treatment in mental health facilities or county jails

Bay Area Legal Aid Economic Justice Project –  Telephone: 800-551-5554
Represents individuals and families appealing unlawful terminations and wrongful denials of Supplemental Security Income, General Assistance, Food Stamps, In-Home Supportive Services, and also works to ensure that the CalWORKs program serves as a bridge to gainful employment.
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