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While many veterans experience physical injuries and ailments following active duty, mental health is a concern as well. Depression is one of the most common mental health issues that former service members face along with PTSD. Much like post-traumatic stress disorder, this illness is often invisible and can be tricky to characterize. However, depression can have life-long effects on a veteran’s well being and daily life.
Fortunately, veterans suffering from depression may be eligible for service-connected disability benefits. This guide will break down the VA rating for depression, as well as PTSD. If you’d like to learn more about the comorbidity of PTSD and depression, click here.
Understanding The VA Rating For Depression
Before diving into VA depression ratings, it’s important to understand how this mental health condition is characterized. The VA lists depression under the category of “Mood Disorders”. The VA used to rate depression using GAF Scores but have since switched to WHODAS 2.0. You can read more about the change here from GAF Psychology to WHODAS 2.0. There are two types of depression that the VA recognizes under this category: major depressive disorder and dysthymic disorder.
A diagnosis of major depressive disorder requires at least two major episodes of depression lasting at least two weeks. The symptoms of major depression need to significantly impair daily functioning. Some of these symptoms include:
- A lack of interest in most activities
- Feeling depressed most of the day
- Inability to sleep or excessive sleeping
- Feeling very fatigued and /or low energy
- recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
The VA also recognizes dysthymic disorder as a type of depression, which is characterized by a mildly depressed or irritable mood. It requires feeling depressed for two years or more with symptoms that greatly prevent everyday functioning. An individual with dysthymic disorder may also have low self-esteem, feelings of hopelessness, difficulty in decision making, and concentration challenges.
Eligibility for VA Compensation
It’s important for a veteran looking to obtain VA benefits for depression to know the eligibility requirements. Specifically, the veteran would need to show:
- A current diagnosis of depression
- Evidence of an incident in service that caused depression
- Medical evidence of a link or nexus between the current diagnosis of depression and the incident in service
Depression Aggravated by Service
There are some cases where a veteran may have been living with depression before their time in service. This individual may have had an experience during military service that caused their mental illness to worsen. This is called aggravated service connection – an event in service that made a pre-existing condition worse.
Aggravated service connection for a pre-existing diagnosis of depression requires:
- A current diagnosis of depression by a VA doctor, psychiatrist, or psychologist
- Evidence of an incident in service that worsened the depression
- Medical evidence of a link between the worsening of the depression and the incident in service.
Breaking Down The VA Rating System For Depression
Once a veteran is able to prove their diagnosis, as well as a connection to a certain incident, the VA will determine their eligibility for VA disability benefits. Depression falls under the General Rating Formula for Mental Disorders category on the rating schedule. The VA rates this mental illness based on how much it impairs the veteran’s occupational and social ability. So, the greater the occupational and social impairment, the higher the rating.
The rating formula for mental disorders goes from a 0 percent to 100 percent disability rating. A 100 percent rating is warranted only where a veteran has absolutely no ability to function socially or at work. A 0 percent rating is assigned when, despite depression symptoms, a veteran’s ability to function is not actually impaired. However, a 0 percent rating, while low, will entitle a veteran to health care at the VA for that condition. While on the topic of depression, it is worth acknowledging another common mental condition afflicting veterans, PTSD, and how it is rated.
Understanding The VA Rating For PTSD
When discussing VA disability ratings for mental conditions, it’s helpful to understand the ratings for post-traumatic stress disorder as well. PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that generally follows a traumatic event, such as combat and violent acts. It can often cause severe symptoms like panic attacks, reactive behavior, intrusive thoughts, and even mild memory loss related to the event. Depression can also be a symptom of this condition, but the VA focuses on PTSD as a whole when determining a disability rating.
Since these symptoms can interfere with daily life, some veterans will pursue a benefits claim. Similar to their ratings for depression, the VA assesses PTSD based on how much the condition causes occupational and social impairment.
Breaking Down The VA Ratings For PTSD
The ratings are broken down as follows:
- 0% Rating: A mental condition has been formally diagnosed, but symptoms are not severe enough to either interfere with occupational and social functioning or to require continuous medication. The VA considers this a non-compensable rating.
- 10% Rating: The veteran has occupational and social impairment due to mild or transient symptoms which decrease work efficiency and ability to perform occupational tasks only during periods of significant stress, or the veteran is taking medications continuously to control the symptoms.
- 30% Rating: The veteran has occupational and social impairment with an occasional decrease in work tasks due to symptoms such as depressed mood, anxiety, suspiciousness, panic attacks (at least once per week), chronic sleep impairment, and mild memory loss.
- 50% Rating: The veteran has occupational and social impairment with reduced reliability and productivity due to symptoms such as flattened affect, circumstantial, circumlocutory, or stereotyped speech; panic attacks that occur more than once a week, difficulty understanding complex commands, impairment of short and long term memory, impaired judgment, impaired abstract thinking, disturbances of motivation and mood, and difficulty in establishing and maintaining effective work and social relationships.
- 70% Rating: The veteran experiences occupational and social impairment with deficiencies in most areas such as work, school, family relations, judgment, thinking, or mood due to symptoms such as suicidal ideation, obsessive rituals that interfere with day to day activities, illogical speech, near-continuous panic attacks, depression that affects the ability to function independently, impaired impulse control, neglect of personal hygiene and appearance, difficulty adapting to stressful situations (including work or work-like settings), and inability to establish and maintain effective relationships.
- 100% Rating: The veteran has total occupational and social impairment due to symptoms such as gross impairment in thought process or communication, persistent delusions or hallucinations, grossly inappropriate behavior, persistent danger of hurting yourself or others, intermittent inability to perform day to day activities, disorientation of time and place, and memory loss of names of close relatives, own occupation, or name.
If you have service-connected PTSD and you cannot work, then you can apply for individual unemployability (IU). Unemployability can be awarded for one disability or for several different ones. PTSD by itself can cause unemployability due to PTSD symptoms of angry outbursts, isolation, and inability to get along with others.
Obtaining Veterans Disability Benefits For Mental Health Disorders
When determining a rating for a mental illness, the VA will normally send veterans to Compensation and Pension Exams, for a doctor to review all the veteran’s symptoms and give a medical opinion. Since there is variability in this process, it can be extremely difficult to predict the exact rating a veteran will receive.
Keep in mind that the VA may give out a low disability rating or deny the claim to start out. However, this should not dissuade a veteran from applying for disability compensation. If a veteran has a mental condition that is linked to the military, the veteran should always pursue the claim. If the claim is denied or if the rating given is too low, the veteran can always appeal.
Understanding the way that the VA rates a mental health condition like depression is a crucial aspect when filing a claim for VA disability compensation. Veterans who understand the initial claims process will have the insight and knowledge that is needed, with one foot already in the door. However, a veterans disability law firm can help you better interpret VA requirements and make an appeal.