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. benji

    They will find it causes cancer then screw over vets who try to get compensation

    August 20, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • johnny

      very good point, and very possible.

      August 20, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Report abuse |
  2. DIng Dong

    How about not leaving them in the sandbox for 9+ years.

    August 20, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Heaveninc

      Agree with you

      August 20, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Jason

    Government has way too much say in our lives. Media doesn't pt the pressure where it needs to be to get results the people want. Government only cares about expanding economies so they get more money and media only cares about ratings, not issues so they can get more money. Why else wouldn't cnn be doing a story on how the greatest athletes, musicians, even scientists of record books smoke weed. If either the media or government cared about the people's economy they would legalize weed, stop wars, and that takes care of our economy and soldiers. That'd be too quick and would actually solve the problem. We have means for alternative fuel, we have means to make cars get over 100mpg, yet we still care about foreign oil? These soldiers wouldn't have head issues if we had leaders who can lead.

    August 20, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tyler

      Jason you think legalizing weed will solve all of America's problems... what a joke

      August 20, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
  4. duh

    SSRIs like paxil and prozac were supposed to cut down on suicide, see how that one turned out. FDA, murdering brown people and americans for hundres of years.

    August 20, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Report abuse |
  5. concerned

    this research bothers me...
    let me mention my personal situation first so there is no misunderstanding.
    I am a vet and yes the suicide rate concerns me, I could have been one of the statistics myself. After marriage issues, which brought work issues... murder and suicide both could have been outcomes. Luckily I am a bit more stable than that.

    Now to my concern on the research. This research is not about the drug that might help prevent suicides and major depression, but on a delivery system for it which would allow it to get past the natural defenses of the body and effect the brain very quickly.

    This has the potential to be abused SEVERELY throughout the world. Imagine that the drug being delivered is an illegal one, and the delivery system has been leaked (once the cat is out of the bag, and it will be no matter what the govt might try to prevent.) ...

    How bad will the drug situation then get? how many people will be affected because some idiot loads an aerosol can with the delivery system and any drug of choice and decides to simply spray it around in a crowd?

    This is NOT a good result, NOT a good idea, and will more than likely be severely abused.
    We may only hope they fail.

    August 20, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Report abuse |
  6. jboHDrider

    We had one short 6 month tour in the first gulf war. These guys are doing 3, 5, 7, and even more tours. You can't compare the two and you can't underestimate the effect that even 3 tours has on a person. Since only 1% of our population serves, the gvernement has every responsibility to take care of them.

    August 20, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • jhalldor

      Make the politicians children serve and go in harm's way if they want to go on Military adventures across the world. Time for America to say no. Bring our boys home to their families, shrink the empire to a sustainable level, no wars with Syria and Iran as the papers are beating the drums for. Too many war profiteers benefit from putting our soldiers in danger. Say No emphatically America.

      August 20, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Darth Cheney

      Excellent point, and alludes to the bigger problem being, if a war is so important, why are only 1% of us fighting it? Could it be that making more Americans involved in the effort might make us less belligerent and more thoughtful about deciding if/when to go to war in the first place?

      August 20, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Portland tony

      Most of the guys returning signed up long after 9/11. So they knew what they were in for and where they would be fighting. Returning home is not always what it's said to be. That being said, a lot of these returning warriors need help with meaningful job training and support when things don't go well at home!

      August 20, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse |
  7. ug

    Just more experimental drugs to use on the troops as they have been the rodents for the military for years and their experiments.

    August 20, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Hollywood

    As a retired vet who has faced suicide on a personal basis, i would love 2 c a useful drug that would help vets in dire straits.

    August 20, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Ronald Hussein Reagan

    Agree with the guy above.. It's astonishing that th U.S. doesn't treat its returning vets better. At the very minimum they should be insured either a job or training that willl result in a "living wage "job.

    August 20, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • oh please

      of course they dont- most people who work at HOME DEPOT are ex military
      look at what the army did for them
      gave them a job that is ONE STEP UP from working at burger king
      shesh
      go army

      August 20, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • jrh

      How would we "give" them jobs? We "gave" them a job in the military. Should the government employ them? The GOP screams bloody murder about the size of government as it is. Imagine a few hundred thousand vets going on the government payroll every year!? They'd be apoplectic.

      August 20, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Addy Tracker

    You didn't serve, xray. Don't lie just to spam you webste. Disgraceful!

    August 20, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Quid Malmborg in Plano TX

    The late Tony Scott could've used this.

    August 20, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Beth

    Your opening sentence for this article needs to be updated. I think you meant to say "decreasing" suicide and depression not "increasing" suicide and depression.

    August 20, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
  13. oldpatriot

    Life as a soldier got you down ?
    Feeling tired, unmotivated, not really into the whole killing thing today ?
    Feel like there is just no reason to go on ?

    Here snort this line of army meth, it will make you happy and take all the pain away!

    August 20, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • johnny

      Well said olpatriot, well said.

      August 20, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
  14. oldpatriot

    You are a racist biased partisan with no value to offer – take an ambien and go back to bed!

    August 20, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
  15. freedomman7

    Not deploying soldiers over and over and over again for 12 month deployments could help. Not really the Army's fault more the politicans who think we can change the nutjob middle east blow myself up mindset.

    August 20, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
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