Primary care physicians (PCPs) are often asked to perform disability evaluations for patients with psychiatric disorders, which are now a leading cause of disability worldwide. After acknowledging the limitations of disability assessments for all conditions, this review aims to provide PCPs with practical knowledge to inform their assessments and interventions with a focus on patients with depression. After the disability definitions and programs in the United States are reviewed, a pragmatic approach to assessing function and discussing return to work is offered. Individualized assessment is key, and functional recovery rather than symptom relief should be prioritized. Finally, evidence-based interventions for enhancing the likelihood of return to work are considered. We believe the principles of functional assessment and recovery lend themselves to ready adaptation for use in other psychiatric conditions and chronic somatic syndromes, including chronic pain. The key principles of this approach are as follows: 1) a patient is not categorically disabled, but has specific limitations in specific contexts; 2) graded, work-oriented rehabilitation with tailored problem-solving strategies are essential; 3) involving a multidisciplinary team in coordinated care optimizes functional recovery; 4) return to work is an iterative process aimed at restoring meaningful function in a stepwise fashion; and 5) the relationship between symptoms and function is bidirectional. PCPs can use these principles to plan optimal recovery paths for psychiatrically ill patients presenting with a wide array of biopsychosocial realities.
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