Number Of Vermonters Receiving Disability Benefits Due To Mental Illness Is Increasing

Oct 30, 2017

A new report finds that the number of people who receive Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI, due to mental illness has been increasing.

The report from the Legislative Joint Fiscal Office finds that since 2001, the number of Vermonters qualifying for SSDI based on mental illness jumped 6 percent. Across the rest of the U.S. it fell by 2 percent.

SSDI is one of the country's most important safety nets, providing monthly payments to people who can't work.

The Vermont Division of Vocational Rehabilitation works to help people with a disability get back into the workplace. Division policy manager James Smith says it's hard to know exactly why the state trend is moving in the opposite direction of most of the rest of the country.

Smith says it's not likely that Vermont has a higher percentage of people with mental illness, but that possibly the state is doing a better job of making sure they receive the benefits.

"If we have a good human service safety net, then we have case managers and social workers out there, perhaps saying, 'You know, you've been out of work for a year now, and you may need to consider applying for SSDI benefits," says Smith. "That conversation may be happening more often in Vermont, because we have a strong social safety net, and it may be happening more than it's happening in states like Mississippi, let's say."

Mental disorders make up the highest proportion of people in Vermont who are receiving SSDI benefits; about 46 percent of all beneficiaries are receiving SSDI benefits due to mental illness.
The state's Joint Fiscal Office brought attention to Vermont's SSDI program about two years ago, when it issued a report that said the state had one of the highest rates of enrolling young people, under the age of 35.

Smith says his staff was taken aback by the first report that highlighted the large number young people in Vermont applying for SSDI benefits.

But he says Voc Rehab is seeing more people dealing with opioid issues, or anxiety and schizophrenia, so these numbers were not as surprising.

"If we have a good human service safety net, then we have case managers and social workers out there, perhaps saying, 'You know, you've been out of work for a year now, and you may need to consider applying for SSDI benefits." — James Smith, Policy Manager for Division of Vocational Rehabilitation

The report highlights the effect all of this has on the state's workforce.

The Agency of Human Services started the Creative Workforce Solutions program to try to get more employers to take a chance on hiring workers with a disability.

Hugh Bradshaw oversees the program and he says people with mental illness do have additional hurdles to get over when trying to get back to work.

"There is certainly a lot of stigma around mental illness," he says. "And likewise employers have fears around whether this person will have episodic experiences. We do know that mental illness can be cyclical, and so for some folks there may be a period of time when they need a time out and they need to take a break from work."

Brattleboro Retreat Director of Ambulatory Care, Kurt White, says, the report draws attention to the important link between work and mental health recovery.

"Being able to work is an asset a lot of times in people's lives, no matter what their age, or their disability status, or their work history," White says. "We want to help them work toward their goals as part of their overall recovery process from mental illness or substance abuse related disorders."

The Joint Fiscal Office raises alarm over the fact that once people get on the disability program, they usually don't return to full-time work status.

And in a state that's dealing with a shortage of young workers. The report says the rising number of 20-and-30-somethings who go on disability will only put more pressures on Vermont's labor situation.

But White says the people he works with are eager to get back to work, and rebuild their lives.

And he says young people who receive disability insurance for mental illness, may be able to return the workforce.

"We don't know if these young people will become chronically disabled  and not get off of disability, in the same way that we're used to with the older demographic that becomes disabled," White says. "This might be a really different cohort of folks that might have a different course of disability than we have seen historically."

White says if there are resources committed to treatment and to work place accommodations, then a lot of the young people with mental illness should be able to return to full time employment.