Can nasal spray help prevent military suicides?
The U.S. military reported its highest rate of suicide in July.
August 20th, 2012
10:22 AM ET

Can nasal spray help prevent military suicides?

Could the solution to increasing suicide and depression rates among members of the U.S. military lie in a nasal spray? The Army hopes so.

In the midst of a crisis that saw its highest rate of suicide in July, the Army has greenlighted a grant for Dr. Michael Kubek, an Indiana University of Medicine professor, to dig deeper into whether a nasal spray could be a safe and effective way to administer a specific antidepressive neurochemical to the brain and help calm suicidal thoughts.

The Army counted 38 confirmed or suspected suicides in July, a tally that took into account both active- and non-active-duty members of the Army National Guard or Reserve. Three of those active-duty soldiers were deployed at the time of their deaths. Before July, the highest monthly level suicide rate for soldiers was 33 in June 2010 and July 2011, according to statistics released by the Army.

Kubek helped discover thyrotropin-releasing hormone, or TRH, which is known to have antisuicidal and antidepression effects. The problem is that the naturally occurring chemical cannot easily cross the “blood-brain barrier.” The barrier is meant to protect the nervous system by keeping out any substances in the blood that could injure the brain, including hormones and neurotransmitters. But it also makes it extremely difficult to get TRH to the brain, rendering normal methods of delivering the chemical, through pills or injection, largely unhelpful.

The military is hoping Kubek, an associate professor of anatomy and cell biology and of neurobiology, can use a three-year grant to work with other researchers to use a nasal spray to get TRH safely into the brain and calm soldiers' thoughts.

Kubek's research was spotted by Navy physician Capt. Neal Naito several years ago, according to a news release from Indiana University. Naito, who had been the director of public health for the Navy but is now retired, reached out to Kubek to see whether his research might be applied to active military members and veterans.

The Army has confirmed 120 suicides for both active- and non-active-duty soldiers in 2012, with 67 other deaths suspected as suicides but still under investigation. Twenty-five of those were attributed to soldiers who did not have any previous deployments. The Army reported 242 suicides in 2009, 305 in 2010 and 283 in 2011.

“These deaths are troubling and tragic,” Kubek said in a statement. “Today’s commonly used anti-depressants can take weeks to have an effect and carry a black box warning label for suicidal ideation in young adults. That is why we hope to develop a quick-acting, easy-to-use, non-invasive system that delivers a compound that’s been shown to reduce suicidal thoughts.”

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told a congressional committee last month that the U.S. military was facing an "epidemic" of suicides and was in need of improvements in mental health services for active-duty and returning troops.

The military spends about $2 billion a year on mental health for its members. But many who study and report on military suicides say the stigma attached to depression as well as the red tape involved in implementing a program make it difficult to attack the problem in the aggressive way that is needed.

Time magazine Deputy Washington Bureau Chief Mark Thompson says a former high-ranking Army officer told him, “there are promising techniques that the military could deploy against suicide, but they involve an initial two-hour screening, a sit-down, a one-on-one with a psychiatrist that this nation is just not willing to pay for.”

Kubek's techniques could be promising. It will take a few years to know, but it's research the Army knows is important.

"Suicide is the toughest enemy I have faced in my 37 years in the Army. And it's an enemy that's killing not just Soldiers, but tens of thousands of Americans every year," Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, vice chief of staff of the Army, said in a written statement after the July release of suicide statistics. "That said, I do believe suicide is preventable. To combat it effectively will require sophisticated solutions aimed at helping individuals to build resiliency and strengthen their life coping skills."

Kubek will work with pharmacology professor Abraham Domb from Hebrew University in Jerusalem to figure out how to deliver the drug effectively. That process, according to Indiana University’s School of Medicine, should take about a year. Kubek would then work with researchers at Purdue University on clinical trials in the second and third years of the grant.

soundoff (288 Responses)
  1. dronehead

    Nasal spray? Maybe anally ingested device. Goodluck

    August 20, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Report abuse |
  2. FormerMarineSgt

    This sounds as stupid as the 'gay bomb' the army tried to develop years ago.

    Yes, they really thought they could create a bomb who's effects would cause the enemy soldiers to go gay and be so busy with each other that they wouldn't be able to fight against us.....

    August 20, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Report abuse |
  3. james

    Give each and every military person as much sit-down, face-to-face therapy as they need. Citizens don't mind paying for that at all. We do mind paying for all the unnecessary and astronomically expensive and redundant weapons systems the military industrial complex keeps pushing. We don't need all those, all the garrisons & bases all over the world, or pointless wars. This country spends way too much on military as it is – 3 times more than the next largest spender. Almost 700 billion per year. Cut it in half and it's still too much. But cut hardware, not medical services to people!

    August 20, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Unshackled Mind

    I...I really dont know how to feel about this. On one hand the soldier is a human being with friends, familiy and treatment for suicidal thoughts would be beneficial to so many people. At the same time, I feel that If a person wants to end their own life then that is their decision to make and we, as independent sentient beings, have no right in altering it. We are not in their heads, we dont know the troubles they are experiencing therefore we have no right to influence them. To me it is just another form of false imprisonment. They dont want to be here anymore. Them them leave.

    August 20, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • sd

      Although your point seems logically correct, most of the times, suicidal tendency is a phase of thoughtless dimension..many people who have been saved from suicide, later realize that there were better ways to handle their problem and the situation was not that bad after all. That is the problem with man – we try and change too much of God's and nature's will due to our intelligence which is both a blessing and a curse. In my opinion, killing one self only causes brief pain and suffering to the victim and a lifetime of it to those he/she leaves behind.

      August 20, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • lambda

      Hi Unshackled Mind. Let them live.

      August 26, 2012 at 12:25 am | Report abuse |
  5. Sarah Z

    in your first line, i believe you meant to write decreasing suicide rates, NOT increasing...

    August 20, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Linguist

    Re-post...without my own TYPO lol

    It is not a typo.

    Could the solution to increasing suicide and depression rates among members of the U.S. military lie in a nasal spray? The Army hopes so.

    the "increasing suicide..." is not a verb phrase, its a gerund (nominalization). It is the same syntax as, "The solution to (Egypt's) crumbling statues is to protect them from the elements". I think most writers would have put "could the solution to the increasing suicide...". The minor difference between the two variations being that the one in the article is generic (i.e. applies to all instances of increasing suicide rates") whereas the "...solution to the increasing suicide..." variation would have had the definite determiner "the" function as a quantifier that is restricted by the Noun Phrase predicate.

    Heh...guess my Linguistics PhD paid off after all....lol

    August 20, 2012 at 7:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • RC

      You, my friend, as am I, are a cunning linguist!
      More importantly, politicians need to stop politicizing any form of medical treatment. Our servicemen and women make incomprehensible sacrifices daily for the good of this nation and their families and battle buddies. Bottom line, take care of our military men and women because we definitely take care of you, especially when nobody is looking.

      August 21, 2012 at 10:56 am | Report abuse |
  7. ma & pa

    The 08.20.12 3:05pm comment, "It begins with a 'moral injustice that is perceived to be inescapable'", defines the root cause turning point where many good human's lives become skewed, against their will. Druging people down can stop them from examining their life-line to find what damaged it so. Worse, is being told that their hope of living a peaceful, free, sweet self-directed life is nonsense, and that injustice is the normal, and "get usta' it". NO! These wars that depress and kill our children are instigated by those who are too cowardly to want to know how to live in freedom. And the instigators are not us.

    August 20, 2012 at 7:48 pm | Report abuse |
  8. ma & pa

    Linguist... like your explainering.

    August 20, 2012 at 7:59 pm | Report abuse |
  9. ma & pa

    Takes up to a month for meds to work????! For some people, one dose makes a dozing stumbler, and more make an almost unrousable sleeper, except for the screaming terrors from nightmares that never existed before the meds and stay lurking for years along with a newly-found lack of good judgment. But, Hey, if it's a human, robot, killing machine that's on the 'want-to-get list' for the military...........

    August 20, 2012 at 8:25 pm | Report abuse |
  10. mahmud

    why mankind do Suicide?The only answer is : absence of piece in the living soul.All mankind of the world are finding the peace.But we are not finding it.Because the creator of the earth put the "peace" in only 'Islam"..the way of life.But we are not following it including the muslim world except a few muslim.

    so the whole muslim world and also all over the world are not finding peace.

    August 20, 2012 at 8:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • jg

      Is that why Muslim groups like Boko Haran burned those 50 Christians to death when they ran to a church for safety in Nigeria last week? Please stop lying by saying Islam is a religion of peace. Muslims are murdering thousands of Christians and burning churches all over the world.

      August 21, 2012 at 2:49 am | Report abuse |
  11. larry5

    Nasal sprays work very quickly. I spray lidocaine with an atomizer into my nasal passages to treat my migraine headaches. It works and is really fast. Doctors tell me I'm crazy but I'll gladly accept crazy when it solves my problem. All the other stuff they've had my try gets me nowhere and this method is simple and works. What's not to like? My solution won't go anywhere because they can't patient lidocaine.

    August 21, 2012 at 5:55 am | Report abuse |
  12. John Galt Ramirez

    Being away from home is hard, killing people or being involved in wholesale destruction and hostility is hard on humans. Facing the reality that what you do ultimately does not matter and that the nations involved return to the same exact state they were before hostilities makes the work you do meaningless and futile. Ultimately it all sucks and is hard on the soul. We can medicate people sure but what we are talking about are temprary solutions.. no one tracks the military suicide AFTER they leave the military. Then we say it has nothing to do with the U.S. military.

    August 21, 2012 at 10:16 am | Report abuse |
  13. AFP1966

    There is already a drug that helps PTSD its called Cannabis. Just say no to big pharma!

    August 21, 2012 at 11:48 am | Report abuse |
  14. amy

    I'm not expert, but I bet ending war would be a heck of a lot more effective in preventing soldier suicides than a nasal spray.

    August 21, 2012 at 11:57 am | Report abuse |
  15. Dale Fletcher

    This is yet another example of medicine throwing a prescription, a drug, at a problem as a band aid to a symptom that has deeper spiritual issues. Inner healing is needed to address the trauma and stressors that our soldiers experience. God, who created man and knows his inner-most needs, is the one 'prescription' most in need by these people... not another drug.

    August 21, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Report abuse |
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