Safety Net or Snare?: What Impact Do Federal Disability Benefits Have on Youth?

2 Comments | Posted

~ Morning Zen Guest Blog Post - Wayne Munchel ~

When youth labeled with a serious mental health diagnosis qualify for federal disability benefits (SSI – Supplemental Security Income or SSDI – Social Security Disability Income), does it represent a step toward self-sufficiency or a step down a slippery slope into perpetual disability and poverty? Well intentioned TAY program staff work hard to establish SSI/SSDI for their young adult clients by supporting the finding of “complete and total disability.” What short and long term impacts does this determination have on the life trajectory of emerging adults? To what extent is it both boon and bane?

Perhaps no other decision by young adults, their families and providers has a more significant impact on youth with serious mental health conditions. (Studies indicate that less than 1% of people who are placed on SSI come off of it at a later point.) On the one hand, SSI/SSDI provides the critical means to meet basic survival needs of food and shelter. For the large percentage of impoverished young people, and especially foster youth aging out of the system, SSI/SSDI can make the difference between homelessness, hunger and exposure to further traumatization. On the other hand, it can frequently serve as a disincentive and deterrent to a youth’s career explorations and undermine their sense of self-efficacy. A key developmental task for young people is thought to be about discovering who they are and where they belong (i.e. identity formation). Being assessed as “completely disabled” can have a profound impact on this formative process.

According to reports, disability rates for the TAY age group have increased significantly. Although these young people report wanting to work and see themselves as able to work, they also indicate that they do not receive the support they need to work. Our communities, colleges and labor workforce are deprived of the considerable talents, contributions and potential of these young people. More importantly, the young people themselves miss out on the opportunities to learn skills and develop strengths through struggles, and never access the protective factors and meaningful roles that school and work can offer.

Ditching the Snare: SSI as a Step Toward Independence

What can be done? The following recommendations are offered for consideration:

* * * * * * * *

munchelWayne Munchel, LCSW is a leader in mental health programs designed for transition age youth. He was also a founding staff member of The Village, an innovative recovery program located in Long Beach, CA. Mr. Munchel provides trainings and consultations for services to young people, including trauma informed care and supported employment.


This article was posted originally on 


  1. Fran Williams's avatar
    Fran Williams
    | Permalink
    So true. My child could work if there was a very supportive environment. (ok to be late when tired, move around when sore, take days off, ask for clarification often, allow to be a leader). We waited 10 years to sign up and really needed to because as I age I cannot keep working to support my child at over 1500 a month. Plus the stress it causes for a child to still be dependent as they strive to become independent. Hopefully child will qualify and also be able to do agricultural healing work for a few hours as is their passion.
  2. Emery's avatar
    | Permalink
    Something I completely agree with and often remind our SOC and providers that we need to focus on supported employment from the get go and set the expectation early that's people can work successfully with the right supports, we do the IPS supported epoyment/education model with youth. At the same time I juggle offering the SOAR approach to obtaining benefits for those who really need it. Thanks for bringing this important topic up!
    1. Leave a Comment