In my Social Security Disability practice, I have attended approximately 100 hearings before an Administrative Law Judge on behalf of claimants. It has been eye-opening to see the number of people who are applying for Social Security Disability Income or Supplemental Security Income that are also abusing substances. This post is to give some words of advice to those who are claimants themselves or those representing claimants in whose case this might be an issue. My experience has shown me that substance abuse can be the death nail of a claim.
Basically it works like this: If you are claiming mood disorders or mental health difficulties and you are simultaneously taking mood-altering substances, do the math. No judge is going to grant disability benefits to feed bad habits and the fact that the claim is based on mental disorders gives them the excuse they need to deny it. The inquiry will be that, if the substance abuse were gone, would the disability still be there? Even if the answer is yes a judge still has the out of saying that there is no way to know since the person’s record reflects continued drug use. The trick to overcoming this problem would be to get sober as early on in the process as you can and make sure it is documented that you are clean. That way, if a disability still exists it will not be overshadowed by drug abuse.
The same thing applies to physical disability. I have had people that suffer from pulmonary insufficiency that still smoke. The same concept applies. How is a judge to know if the lung problems would persist outside of the substance abuse if the claimant is still smoking? The judge again has an out.
All too often I take someone to hearing that has a legitimate disability but it doesn’t matter because they are abusing substances that counteract their argument. A claimant can’t hide from their record. Every time they argue with their doctor about medication, it is noted in the file and the judge sees it. The most difficult is when someone is in pain and their medications aren’t working so they like to suggest to their doctors different medications to prescribe them that they think would work better. A word of advice on this would be that if claimant is in pain and their medication isn’t working, let the doctor know and don’t make suggestions. Allow them to utilize their expertise to help and don’t muddy the record by becoming the person known for self-medicating or having drug seeking behaviors.
The fact is that substance abuse will always be a hindrance, but the sooner in the process you can show you are clean and the earlier the date that you can truthfully tell the judge you have stopped using, drinking or smoking the better and you might be able to salvage your claim if you truly have a legitimate disability.