A traumatic brain injury (TBI) can have lifelong effects on nearly every aspect of a person’s life. One often overlooked symptom of TBI is severe depression. If you suffered a TBI while serving in the military and are now struggling with depression, you may be able to receive disability compensation for this condition by applying for a secondary service connection.
The Relationship Between TBI and Depression
In the military, gunshot wounds, improvised explosive devices, and grenades are the most common causes of TBI. An explosion, blast, or blow to the head disrupts normal brain function and damages brain tissue by pulling the nerve fibers apart.
After a TBI, studies show that between 15% and 50% of people will struggle with depression. Some common signs of depression include fatigue, irritability, anxiety, changes in appetite, loss of interest in activities you previously enjoyed, difficulty making decisions, and a hopeless or pessimistic outlook on life. Turning to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate symptoms is common, which can lead to the development of a substance use disorder. In the most severe cases, depression leads to self-harm or suicide.
It is unknown how exactly a TBI causes depression. Experts believe it may be a combination of changes in the structure of the brain itself and the stress associated with the physical and cognitive effects of the injury. There is no identified link between age or gender and a person’s risk of suffering depression after a TBI.
Depression is diagnosed by evaluating a person's symptoms and their severity. Everyone feels “blue” sometimes, but a diagnosis of clinical depression requires symptoms that last for at least two weeks and are severe enough to interfere with a person’s functioning in their daily life.
Depression caused by a TBI is typically treated with a combination of antidepressant medication and counseling. Treatment should be integrated into a Veteran’s overall care for TBI.
Receiving VA Disability Benefits for Depression
VA disability benefits are available for Veterans diagnosed with major depressive disorder or dysthymic disorder. As with other types of disabilities, these conditions are assigned a percentage rating from 0% to 100% based on their severity. A 0% rating does not qualify a Veteran for cash payments, but it does provide the right to important healthcare benefits. A 100% rating is only given when a Veteran is unable to work or function socially in any capacity. The higher your disability rating, the higher your monthly benefits will be.
If you’ve been diagnosed with depression and suffered a TBI while on active duty, your depression may qualify as a secondary condition. The VA considers depression a secondary condition for the purpose of determining disability benefits if it occurs within three years of a moderate or severe TBI or within 12 months of a mild TBI.
The presumed secondary service connection associated with depression following a TBI expedites the process of receiving benefits because you do not need to gather medical evidence proving the link between your depression and the TBI. Note that the presumed secondary service connection also applies to Parkinson’s Disease, unprovoked seizures, and certain forms of dementia that are diagnosed after a TBI.
If your depression is approved for disability benefits as a secondary condition, you will be assigned a rating for each disability listed on your application as well as a combined disability rating. Your combined disability rating can’t exceed 100%, even if your individual ratings total more than 100% when they are added together. This is because a person can never be more than 100% able-bodied.
How an Attorney Can Help
Although depression has a presumed secondary service connection, Veterans can still experience difficulty accessing the benefits they need to support themselves and their families. For example, a Veteran’s service records may only note the existence of a head injury instead of describing the loss of consciousness and other symptoms necessary to classify the injury as a mild, moderate, or severe TBI.
If you have yet to file a claim for depression as a secondary condition or believe your current VA disability rating is incorrect, the office of Sean Kendall, Attorney-at-Law, can help. Contact us today to schedule a free, no-obligation initial consultation.