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Original Research

Separation Anxiety and Measures of Suicide Risk Among Patients With Mood and Anxiety Disorders

Stefano Pini, MDa,*; Marianna Abelli, MDa; Barbara Costa, PhDb; Claudia Martini, PhDb; Miriam A. Schiele, PhDc; David S. Baldwin, DMd,e; Borwin Bandelow, MDf; and Katharina Domschke, MD, PhDc,g

Published: March 16, 2021


Background: Separation anxiety disorder may be important when considering risk of suicide. The aim of this study was to examine the association between both childhood and adult separation anxiety (disorder) and measures of suicide risk in a large cohort of outpatients with anxiety and mood disorders.

Methods: The sample included 509 consecutive adult psychiatric outpatients with DSM-IV mood disorders or anxiety disorders as a principal diagnosis recruited at the Department of Psychiatry, University of Pisa, Italy, between 2015 and 2018. Suicide risk was evaluated by the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HDRS) item 3. Patients were classified in 2 groups: those with a score ≥ 1 and those with a score of 0 on HDRS item 3. Suicide risk was also evaluated by specific items within the Mood Spectrum, Self-Report (MOODS-SR), a questionnaire evaluating lifetime suicidal symptoms. Separation anxiety (disorder) was assessed based on the Structured Interview for Separation Anxiety Symptoms in Adulthood/Childhood (SCI-SAS-A/C), the Separation Anxiety Symptom Inventory (SASI), and the Adult Separation Anxiety Scale (ASA-27).

Results: Of the 509 patients, 97 had an HDRS item 3 score ≥ 1, and 412 had a score of 0. Adult separation anxiety disorder was more frequent among individuals who had suicidal thoughts (53.6%) than those who did not (39.6%) (P = .01). Dimensional separation anxiety symptoms on all scales were elevated in patients with suicidality when compared to patients without (SASI: P = .02; SCI-SAS-C: P < .001; SCI-SAS-A: P < .001; ASA-27: P = .002). Logistic regression found that adult separation anxiety disorder (odds ratio [OR] = 1.86, 95% CI = 1.16–2.97), major depression (OR = 7.13, 95% CI = 3.18–15.97), bipolar I disorder (8.15, 95% CI = 3.34–19.90), and bipolar II disorder (OR = 8.16, 95% CI = 3.50–19.05) predicted suicidal thoughts. Linear regression found that depression (P = .001) and ASA-27 separation anxiety (P = .001) significantly predicted lifetime suicide risk. Mediation analysis found that separation anxiety significantly mediated the association between depression and suicide risk.

Conclusions: This study indicates a substantial role of separation anxiety in predicting suicidal thoughts, both as state-related symptoms (evaluated by HDRS item 3) and as longitudinal dimensional symptoms (as evaluated by MOODS-SR). Greater understanding of the influence of separation anxiety in patients with affective disorders may encourage personalized interventions for reducing suicide risk.

Volume: 82

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