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Exploring Separation Anxiety Disorder in Adults

written by: Mercedes Hamshar • edited by: Daniel P. McGoldrick • updated: 10/10/2010

Separation anxiety disorder is commonly thought to be a disorder that occurs only in childhood. However, recent research has revealed that there are in fact numerous cases of separation anxiety in adults. Cases have both persisted from childhood and developed for the first time in adulthood.

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    Separation anxiety disorder is often thought to purely be a childhood disorder. Although the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders recognises adult separation anxiety disorder, it states that that separation anxiety rarely persists into adulthood. However, several empirical studies have suggested that this is not the case. These studies suggest that many more cases of childhood separation anxiety disorder may persist into adulthood than previously thought, and that at least some cases of separation anxiety disorder begin in adulthood.

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    How Common is Separation Anxiety Disorder in Adults?

    The notion that separation anxiety disorder is unlikely to persist into adulthood has arisen from a number of supposedly reliable studies. However, these studies have now been criticised for not following sufferers of childhood separation anxiety disorder for long enough in order to ascertain whether an adult equivalent of the disorder emerges. A recent large scale study by Shear et al (2006) has revealed that in fact more than a third of their adult separation anxiety sufferers had also suffered from childhood separation anxiety disorder. Two thirds though, interestingly, had experienced their initial onset of separation anxiety disorder in adulthood. 80% of cases occurred before the age of 30, with most having onset in their late teenage years or in their early 20's.

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    The Prevalance and Correlates in Adult Separation Anxiety

    Adult separation anxiety has been found to be significantly more common in women than in men. However, that isn't so much the case in in childhood separation anxiety which is statistically similar to other anxiety disorders. It has also been found that sufferers of adult separation anxiety disorder are more likely to be unmarried or divorced but research can not decisively say whether this is a cause or effect of separation anxiety disorder. Sufferers have also been found to be more likely to have a low standard of education and to be unemployed.

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    Comorbidity in Adult Separation Anxiety

    Like other anxiety disorders, adult separation anxiety disorder is highly comorbid with other mental health disorders. Of Shear et al's (2006) sample 86% suffered from another mental illness, with the most common being specific phobia (37.6%), major depressive disorder (37%) and social phobia (33.4%). In addition, more than 40% of the sample reported severe impairments in their social and personal life.

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    Treatment of Adult Separation Anxiety Disorder

    74% of Shear et al's (2006) sample reported receiving treatment for emotional problems, however, less than one third reported separation anxiety as a focus of treatment. Treatment was far more likely to focus on other disorders that patients were suffering from that are better recognised by practitioners. This suggests that treatment providers often fail to recognise separation anxiety disorder when comorbid with other disorders. Furthermore, there is a distinct lack of research into the treatment of adult separation anxiety disorder, suggesting that the disorder is often overlooked.

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    References

    Shear, K., Jin, R., Ruscio, A.M., Walters, E.E. & Kessler, R.C. (2006) Prevalence and correlates of estimated DSM-IV child and adult separation anxiety disorder in the national comorbidity survey replication. American Journal of Psychiatry, 163, 1074-1083.