The authors speculated that those catastrophic cognitions activated suicidal ideation and interacted with high limbic activation (the flight-or-fight response) to lead to suicide attempts.
In their recent prospective study, Yaseen and colleagues1 examined the relationship between panic attacks, panic symptoms, and suicidality in individuals who met DSM-IV criteria for past-year major depressive episodes. They looked at NESARC data from 2001-2002 (wave 1) and NESARC data from 2004-2005 (wave 2).
Analyzing data on 2864 participants in the survey’s wave 1 and 2 who had depressive disorders, the authors found that past-year panic attacks in wave 1 significantly increased the odds for subsequent suicide ideation and attempt in the 3-year follow-up interval.
But “not all panic attacks are created equal,” Yaseen cautioned. In multivariate analyses, the researchers found that panic attacks were not a significant predictor but that panic attacks featuring fear of dying were. Among depressed individuals with panic attacks, fear of dying during such an attack increased the odds of a subsequent suicide attempt 7-fold, even after controlling for comorbid psychiatric conditions, pertinent demographic factors, and other panic attack symptoms.
In their article, Yaseen and colleagues noted that more than half of persons suffering from a psychiatric disorder seek medical care in the month before making a suicide attempt.9 Of those, only 5% report thoughts of suicide at the time.9
“Identifying characteristic symptoms that are strongly associated with future suicide attempts would have clinical utility,” they wrote.
Yaseen recommends that patients who present to emergency departments with panic symptoms be screened for a mood disorder and suicidality and referred to appropriate psychiatric or psychological help if warranted.
“It is not enough to just reassure them that they were having a panic attack and not a heart attack,” he said. Conversely, “if someone is being treated for major depression or bipolar disorder, even if the patient is not reporting active suicidal ideation, we think it is important for clinicians to ask about panic attacks and pay particular attention to what panic symptoms the patient has, because those symptoms can be a significant warning sign that trouble is brewing.”
Yaseen added that he, Galynker, and others recently authored an open access article about the use in a psychiatric emergency room of a revised version of the Suicide Trigger Scale (STS-3), a 42-item scale designed to measure a panic-like psychopathological state.10 Galynker uses the scale in his clinical practice but also questions patients about their panic symptoms and asks them what the panic feels like. If it is associated with the fear of death, he said, then the patient is “more likely to commit suicide, because death is already in their consciousness.”
Galynker said he considers hospitalizing depressed patients who have made a previous suicide attempt or are experiencing a crisis and are expressing a fear of death.
“On the other hand, if someone has panic attacks and has had depression in the past, but their life is stable at the moment . . . I explain to them that suicidal urges may happen to them,” he said.
He describes what that urge might feel like and asks them to contact him or a psychiatric emergency department if it occurs. He explains that however horrible they feel at the time, the panic attack is going to go away and they are going to be feeling better.
Galynker is excited about the promise of this “new line of research.” In his career, he has seen some 25,000 patients, 7 of whom have killed themselves.
“A patient suicide is a very traumatic event for a psychiatrist. I remember vividly my last directions to these patients. Like nearly every psychiatrist, I questioned whether there was anything I could have identified or done differently,” he said.
Those experiences coupled with a desire to know what happens in a person’s mind before he or she actually commits suicide, he said, propelled him into this research.