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. S-Hug

    Depressing: The realization that "fighting for freedom" actually means fighting for Halliburton, Harris, Big Oil, and the 1%.
    Vote Republican and we'll live to see WWIII.

    August 20, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Report abuse |
  2. dougcollins

    I suggest the real problem is only a crazy person would join the military today. The last time the Army came up with a modd enhancer. I think they called it LSD. I wonder how this will work out.

    August 20, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Very True

      Crazy and desperate with no other job prospects is about it. Very few join out of a sense of duty, pride, or family history anymore.

      August 20, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Report abuse |

    Just DO NOT join the military. Wait until you get drafted like everyone else.

    August 20, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Top

    Here's an idea! Quit sending these young men and women to serve 3, 4, 5 combat tours in short succession. Aside from the obvious trauma of the battlefield, spouses get tired of raising a family alone. There's a staggering number of troops that come home only to find that their husband or wife has taken the children moved away.

    August 20, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • mm

      Here's an idea! Don't volunteer in an all volunteer military during war time. NO one is drafted!

      August 20, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Aubrie

    Not to be rude or disrespectful.... but given it's dismal and disgusting history with experimentation and other horrors, I would NEVER trust the military trying to bathe my brain in chemicals.......

    August 20, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Teri

      No kidding! Everybody who has ever been remotely associated with the military knows to avoid the healthcare on post at all costs. Not only do they use the soldiers as guinea pigs, but they have zero desire to truly cure anybody. They would rather run tests and try experimental treatments.

      August 20, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |
  6. linda operle

    I know 2 young men with depression issues accepted in to the military. That's the problem they know going in they can't take it yet the military sends them in anyway. They should never have been accepted to serve. So the military is ignoring past mental health problems.

    August 20, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Very True

      Yes, they are certainly ignoring past mental health issues, even when those issues were made clear prior to them being accepted into the military. I know this for a fact.

      August 20, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Report abuse |
  7. rocinante

    Yikes, now the military industrial complex wants to get into pharmaceuticals.

    August 20, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse |
  8. mandfkiwsa

    Instead of changing the conditions that often make soldiers or others want to commit suicide, instead let's suppress their symptoms or kill the pain with hormones. This is bad medical reasoning at best, and at worst cynical and evil.

    August 20, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Nofakingway

    Yayy, now we can send soldiers back for unlimited tours of duty in harsh combat zones. Just as long as they get plenty of happy thoughts inhalables!

    August 20, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Harold, Phoenix,AZ.

    Why don't we supply enough troops to end the endless tours in combat zones? Now its a nasal spray, are these people crazy? Start a draft of some sort, that way the nation would be involved. as it stands now, beyond the support our Troops
    bumper stickers, the people who care deeply are among the less than one percent of the population who actually have skin in the game. Enter the real World America, it is a disgrace what we are doing to the Military. I am a veteran from the Vietnam era.

    August 20, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brian

      You hit the nail on the head. These wars have been fought by a select few while the rest of the US population is in line at Starbucks. Additionally, the general public is very ignorant of the capabilities of service members, which has led to a high unemployment level amongst vets. Things need to change

      August 20, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Report abuse |
  11. The source

    American medicine is a joke. They always try to treat symptoms with drugs instead of dealing with the source of the problem.

    What can they change in the military to ease depression?

    August 20, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
  12. jimdog33

    What a farce!!! My goodness. How much was spent on this nasal spray research that could've gone into actual assistance like therapists, pharma & support.

    August 20, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Report abuse |
  13. No one

    Or we could, you know, stop sending them to a desert.

    August 20, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Hi

    I am not a grammer guy or anything, but I do believe the opening sentence of this article states that they are trying to increase the suicide rates...

    August 20, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Report abuse |
  15. jrh

    Military medicine is frightening. Been there, done that. The only reason a physician would stay in the military for an entire career is because they can't be sued for malpractice – no matter how bad they are (and there are some BAD ones).

    August 20, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
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