Panic Disorders Spur Women To Start Support Group

July 31, 1991|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff writer

WESTMINSTER — The plane waiting to take her family to a vacation in Canada was about to boost its engines when Christina Joanna Suter realized her brother had fled.

Stephen Suter, then 19, suffered from an anxiety disorder that led to his suicide last month, but it was the vacation episode that first alerted his sister. She found the young man on his way out the airport, but talked him back.

Eight years later, Christina Suter and her aunt, Ginny Lee Young,are talking to others with anxiety and panic disorders through a backyard support group.

The patio at Suter and Young's brick ranch house on Geneva Drive is soothing and safe under the shade of a mature maple tree and towering hemlock.

But they know it won't feel safe enough for some of those gathered for the confidential support meetings, so they make it clear that anyone may get up and leave any time during the meeting.

Their pain and loss remains fresh a month afterthe suicide of Stephen Suter, 27. He hanged himself from a bridge June 26 in Frederick, where he was living in a halfway house after being released from the Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville. He hadbeen diagnosed with schizophrenia and later with severe panic attacks.

Young and Suter decided to found the group in April and ran adsin the personals section of the classifieds. Stephen was still alivethen. He had talked often of suicide and had tried once before, Young said, but their efforts couldn't save him.

"We mainly founded (the support group) because we wanted to educate and help people like Steve," Young said.

Anxiety disorders include severe panic attacks,phobias, post-traumatic stress and obsessive-compulsive disorders, said Francis Schindler, a clinical psychologist who works with the Carroll County Health Department's Mental Health Bureau.

The symptomsof a panic attack can include shortness of breath, dizziness, an increased heart rate, sweating, a feeling of choking, nausea, numbness or a sense of impending death, Schindler said.

The outward signs can be subtle. Although a person may be experiencing many of those symptoms on the inside, he or she might look calm and in control on the outside, Schindler said.

"A lot of panicked people do end up in theemergency room because they think they're having a heart attack," Young said. "Mainly it's a fear of losing control. You could be in the grocery store, and you feel like you're going to die."

The supportgroup, which is independent of the Health Department and any privatetherapists, is not meant as a substitute for professional treatment,said Young.

"The common theme," Young said of those who attended the four meetings so far, "is they didn't know someone else suffered from this."

Knowing they aren't alone helps, she said.

Young, in her 50s, has a milder kind of anxiety disorder called seasonal affliction disorder, or "winter blues."

"I didn't realize it right away, but each year, I wasn't doing very well in the winter," she said.

She later noticed her malaise coincided with the onset of daylightsavings time and a lack of sunlight. She said she has been under a doctor's care, and medication has been helpful.

The most important rule at the meetings is confidentiality, she said. Otherwise, the gatherings are loosely structured, and no one has time limits for speaking. So far, they haven't set a regular time, but are leaning toward Tuesday nights. The group has met four times so far.

Suter said thesupport group also is a way to share books and tapes she and others have collected and to educate the public and family members. Suter herself has spent more than $1,000 on the materials. And when anxiety is the topic of a certain talk show, one of them will tape it and share it with the group.

Schindler said such support groups have led to more awareness of anxiety disorders.

"Fewer than one in four seek treatment," Young said of people with anxiety disorders. "A lot of them are huddled at home, and we don't know they need help. Others were (known as) the town drunks."

She said many people with anxiety disorders use alcohol as an escape, as did her nephew.

Young said she first noticed when Stephen was about 16 that he was drinking too much and seemed out of control.

Suter said her brother had troublecompleting a driver education course at a time when most teens can'twait to get their licenses.

But the first dramatic scene was during the family vacation to Canada when he was 19. Although she and herfather talked him into making the trip, he remained uncomfortable. During one meal at a restaurant, Stephen waited in the car while the family dined.

"Things other people enjoy were just agony to him," Young said. "Panic is agony. You want to escape at all costs. And he did -- by hanging himself. It cost him his life to get away from panic."

The group also welcomes family members of people with the disorders, whether those afflicted attend or not, Young said.

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