What VA Disability Rating should I expect for depression?

Are you a veteran suffering from psychological distress symptoms, such as depression, who hasn’t received any treatment or disability benefits? You don’t need to suffer without help or without monthly tax-free payments that will help you financially while you seek treatment.

According to 2008 VA estimates of depression in veterans, approximately 1 in 3 veterans visiting primary care clinics had some symptoms of depression, 1 in 5 had serious symptoms, and 1 in 8 to 10 had major depression, requiring treatment. 

In May 2022, the VA reported more concerning statistics. Although many service members return from deployment and experience symptoms of psychological distress, fewer than half of those veterans receive any mental health treatment. Between 37 and 50 percent of veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq have been diagnosed with a mental disorder associated with substance use disorders (SUDs) and 63% of those diagnosed with SUDs also met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Are you one of those veterans? Are you suffering from depression or other psychological symptoms, even if you don’t have an official diagnosis? This article gives you more information about the VA disability process and how the VA treats depression claims for VA disability benefits.

What does the VA consider when evaluating depression claims? 

While the VA increases to recognize the prevalence of psychological and psychiatric disorders of veterans, their approach to evaluation of depression claims is still largely lumped together with other types of VA psychiatric disability claims. 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.  

Despite that, depression that is connected to your military service, either directly or secondary to some other service-connected condition, can entitle you to VA disability compensation. On the bright side, you can still file a claim for VA disability benefits even if you don’t have a specific diagnosis yet. During the process of developing your claim for decision, either a C&P Exam (Compensation & Pension Exam) and/or an IME (independent medical examination) may be used to provide more detail to 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 anxiety but instead make a more general claim.

What VA Disability Rating should I expect for depression?

The VA’s means of evaluating depression claims focus on occupational and social impairment, how you interact with the world, particularly at work and at home. 

VA disability ratings for depression claims range from 0% (formal diagnosis, but symptoms are not severe enough to interfere with occupational and social functioning or to require continuous medication), with intermediate steps at 10%, 30%, 50%, and 70% up to 100% (total occupational and social impairment). The average VA rating for depression seems to be 70 percent.

The description for a 10% rating is this: “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; symptoms controlled by continuous medication.”

The description for a 30% rating reflects more significant impairment and some specific symptoms. “Occupational and social impairment with occasional decrease in work efficiency and intermittent periods of inability to perform occupational tasks (although generally functioning satisfactorily, with routine behavior, self-care, and conversation normal). Due to such symptoms as depressed mood, anxiety, suspiciousness, panic attacks (weekly or less often), chronic sleep impairment, or mild memory loss (such as forgetting names, directions, recent events).”

Keep in mind that you may not have all of the symptoms described at any rating level. The VA makes an estimate of which level your symptoms and impairment seem to most closely match.

The description for a 50% rating is this: “Occupational and social impairment with reduced reliability and productivity. Due to such symptoms as: flattened affect, circumstantial, circumlocutory, or stereotyped speech, panic attacks more than once a week, impaired judgment, impaired abstract thinking, disturbances of motivation and mood, difficulty in establishing and maintaining effective work and social relationships, difficulty in understanding complex commands, impairment of short- and long-term memory (e.g., retention of only highly learned material, forgetting to complete tasks).”

Don’t worry if some of these terms are unfamiliar to you. These will be part of the evaluation conducted as part of the process for your VA disability claim.

The description for a 70% rating is this: “Occupational and social impairment, with deficiencies in most areas, such as work, school, family relations, judgment, thinking, or mood. Due to such symptoms as: suicidal ideation, obsessional rituals which interfere with routine activities, speech intermittently illogical, obscure, or irrelevant, spatial disorientation, near-continuous panic or depression affecting the ability to function independently, appropriately and effectively, impaired impulse control (such as unprovoked irritability with periods of violence), neglect of personal appearance/hygiene, difficulty in adapting to stressful circumstances (including work or a worklike setting), inability to establish and maintain effective relationships.”

Finally, a 100% rating has the following description: “Total occupational and social impairment. Due to such symptoms as: gross impairment in thought process or communication, persistent delusions/hallucinations, grossly inappropriate behavior, disorientation to time or place; memory loss for names of close relatives, own occupation, or own name, persistent danger of hurting self or others, intermittent inability to perform activities of daily living (including maintenance of minimal personal hygiene).”

Can you adjust your claim if things get worse? 

Yes. If your depression, or other service-connected disability gets worse after you have already received a decision on your claim, you may request an increased rating.

If your request is done within one year of your Rating Decision, this may take the form of a Supplemental Claim appeal (which is actually asking the VA to consider that you should have been at a higher rating in the first place). If more than a year has passed, you can file a new VA Form 21-526EZ claim form and specify that you are asking for “Increased Disability Compensation.” To support your request for adjustment upward, you will need to provide “medical or lay evidence to show a worsening or increase in severity and the effect that worsening or increase has on your ability to work.”

What happens if your claim is denied? Or if the rating is lower than expected? 

Unfortunately, initial VA disability claims are sometimes denied or underrated. Sometimes the VA gets it right the first time, sometimes it requires more work to get them on the same page as you in terms of what your appropriate compensation level should be, or other specifics of your claim.

You have one year after your initial Ratings Decision to file an appeal of any aspect of that decision. VA claim appeals have a reasonably high success rate, especially when the veteran is represented by a private attorney. 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 handling your claim take a second look. This may be appropriate if all of the necessary information is already in your file, but something was missed. 

A Supplemental Claim is a request to add some additional information and then have your claim reviewed again in light of that evidence. For example, if your ratings decision states that your claim for depression was denied because there was no diagnosis of depression in the file. In that circumstance you could go to your doctor or get an independent medical examination (IME) and get documentation of a diagnosis of depression and file a Supplemental Claim asking for a new review of your case with the added information.

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 doesn’t convert well into paper records. With a Board Review you can have a live hearing (in person in Washington, DC or via videoconference) and ask a judge to review your claim.

Whatever mode of appeal you think you may want to try, don’t try to do it alone. This would be a good time to check out your options for hiring an experienced VA disability claim attorney.

What should you look for in a good VA claim attorney?

It may be tempting to hire one of the many companies online that offer to help you file your claim or appeal in some fashion with the thought that if you do it yourself, you’ll be better off and it will cost you less. That just isn’t the case.

An experienced VA disability claims attorney is someone who has advocated for hundreds or thousands of other veterans similarly situated to you. They work day after day, building a wealth of knowledge that they use to tailor your case to your specific needs. They know more than just how to fill out forms.

VA disability attorneys are part of a very small niche legal area requiring additional accreditation that other lawyers don’t have. You will need 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 with careful analysis of your case up front, identifying what evidence and arguments will make it easy for the VA to say “yes” to your claim, and then having the patience to take all of the necessary steps to get there, including, when necessary, independent medical exams and vocational rehabilitation studies. 

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.  Contact us now for your free consultation. 

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