What VA disability claim documentation is needed for depression?
Published April 21, 2023
Depression in veterans is a common problem, either directly caused by something that happened during their military service or secondarily to some other condition caused by their service. Monthly, tax-free VA disability benefits are paid for service-connected depression. This article reviews what the VA looks at in considering a VA psychiatric disability claim for depression, what documentation you may need to get your VA disability claim granted and properly rated, and a brief overview of how VA disability appeals work.
What does the VA consider when evaluating depression claims?
The VA does acknowledge service-connected depression for purposes of VA disability compensation benefits, though the VA disability process for handling mental health claims is, in our opinion, not as refined as it could be.
The VA claims process involves a basic 3-factor evaluation that the VA does for all VA disability claims is to see if there is a current diagnosis, something that happened in service, and then a nexus, or connection, between the two.
Even if you don’t have a formal diagnosis yet, you can go ahead and file your claim. In the 2009 U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims case, Clemons v. Shinseki, the court explained that veterans can only attest to their symptomatology and how it affects them on a daily basis. As such, service-connection for one psychiatric condition (e.g., PTSD) must be considered a claim for any psychiatric condition that may be reasonably raised by several factors (e.g., the veteran’s description of the claim and/or symptoms, evidence submitted by the veteran or obtained by VA). In other words, you do not have to file separate VA claims for depression and, for example, PTSD, but instead make a more general claim.
Assuming there is even a small amount of information showing that you have a current disability that is related to service, the VA will likely schedule you for a C&P Exam where a medical professional will examine you and ask you questions regarding your condition to see if they can provide an opinion or nexus to get you granted service connection.
Keep in mind that sometimes a depression claim is granted as directly related to service, but also may be a secondary condition related to other service-connected conditions. For example, if you have chronic back pain from an in-service injury, that may limit your activity and lead to depression. Sometimes PTSD can also lead to depressive symptoms.
If the VA agrees that your depression is service-connected, it will then assess a VA disability rating from 0% – 100% (at intervals of 10%, 30%, 50% and 70%) based upon how closely your symptoms and effects on your occupational and social impairment match with any of those ratings levels. The VA uses the same rating schedule to evaluate all psychiatric conditions, other than eating disorders. Also, with the exception of anxiety, medical examiners use the same DBQ (disability benefits questionnaire) for all of these conditions. You do not need to have every symptom at any one rating level. There is no average VA rating for depression; each case is evaluated on its own facts and compared against the VA’s rating schedule.
What documentation do I need for a VA disability claim for depression?
As noted above, for all disability benefit claims the VA looks for a current diagnosis, something that happened in service, and then a nexus, or connection, between the two. The evidence supporting each of these three factors comes in different forms depending on your unique situation. Among the types of evidence that the VA reviews will be your service treatment records (did you report any depression during your service), your medical records (does it reflect a current diagnosis of depression?) and anything that shows a connection between the two.
Obviously medical evidence is going to be an essential part of documentation for a VA disability claim for depression. Medical records, whether a private physician, VA doctor, or in-service treatment will be a way to demonstrate the frequency, duration, and severity of symptoms. This, and sometimes accompanied by employment records can show how the condition and symptoms are affecting your daily life, at work, at home, or in social situations.
Sometimes lay evidence, or buddy statements, may also help build the necessary picture of your mental condition. Sometimes spouses or family members that interact with you regularly may see even more to your condition than you do. The goal is to assemble the records necessary to show your current condition and how it connects to your prior military service.
What happens if your claim is denied? Or if the rating is lower than expected?
Sometimes your initial VA disability claim for depression will be denied, or under-rated (assigning a rating percentage that you believe is too low for your condition). Do not give up. Do not just refile your claim hoping for a different outcome. Appeal. VA claim appeals can often get you the outcome you want.
You have one year after your initial Ratings Decision to file an appeal of any aspect of that decision – a denial, an underrating, a wrong effective date for the start of benefits. According to Board of Veterans Appeals Annual Reports to Congress for 2021, 77% of veterans represented by attorneys have their appealed claims allowed or remanded (kicked back for a further look). The same report says that self-represented veterans have 27% denial rate (which isn’t statistically bad), but those represented by attorneys have only a 15% denial rate.
There are three types of appeal that you can file, depending on the specifics of your case.
A Higher Level Review is a request to have a more experienced person at the VA Regional Office do another review of your claim. This may be appropriate if all of the necessary information is already in your file, but something was missed in the initial decision.
A Supplemental Claim is a request to add some additional information and then have your claim reviewed again in light of that evidence. This may be appropriate if the rating decision says you were missing some documentation and you know you already have it, or can acquire it and have it added to your file.
A Board Review appeal takes your case out of the regional office and up to the Board of Veteran Appeals where an actual Veterans Law Judge would look at your case. This is sometimes appropriate if there is a legal issue to be argued, or sometimes because your case just needs a live hearing.
Whatever mode of appeal you think you may want to try, don’t try to do it alone. The odds of success are higher with help of some kind, including that of an experienced VA disability claim attorney.
What should you look for in a good VA claim attorney?
Shop carefully for a good VA disability attorney, or more specifically, a great VA disability appeals attorney. There are lots of companies to be found online that offer some kind of “help” in filing your claim or appeal. Be cautious. It is illegal to charge a veteran to prepare an initial VA disability claim, even an attorney. However, there are many VSOs (veteran service officers) in your local area that can assist you free of charge. Once you get to the appeal process, however, an attorney can be hired.
Keep in mind that in hiring an attorney you are getting someone trained and experienced in advocacy, not just filling out forms. An experienced VA disability claims attorney is someone who has advocated for hundreds or thousands of other veterans similarly situated to you; they are used to recognizing why the VA hasn’t given you the decision you believe you are entitled to, and figured out how to collect and present the necessary evidence to change the VA’s mind.
Look for VA accreditation. You can go to the VA website and search for your potential attorney or agent and make sure they are properly accredited.
While you are at it, you might as well also confirm that the attorney you are thinking about hiring is properly licensed to practice law in their state bar; each state has a website for public search to check that the attorney is properly licensed and in good standing. If your case is, or might, go up to the CAVC (Court of Appeal for Veteran Claims) for review, you can check who members of that court’s bar are here. If your case is, or might, go higher up to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, you can check whether your proposed attorney is admitted to that court here.
In addition to basic qualifications to practice in the small niche area of VA disability law, look for a law firm whose attorneys and staff have the patience and tenacity to work through the bureaucracy of the VA. Getting a successful outcome happens when your advocate knows how to line up the evidence and arguments in a way that makes it easy for the VA to say “yes” to your claim.
How much does an experienced and talented VA disability appeals attorney cost? The good news is that most work on a contingency basis – they don’t get paid unless and until you get paid, and in proportion to how much back pay you receive.
Are you ready for an experienced lawyer to review your case? Veterans Law Group has helped thousands of veterans collect millions of dollars in back pay since 1996; maybe they can help you too. Contact us now for your free consultation.