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. Jake

    Or, the military could just pull their head out of their rear, and start treating the soldiers like the human beings they are. The sad truth is that the hierarchical command structure convinces people of hierarchical individual worth - a total fallacy. A private is worth just as much as a general off the battlefield - they are both humans and both have intrinsic, inalienable, individual worth. That's the idea our great country was FOUNDED upon, for God's sake. I know, I served myself - when you get beat down every single day by the constant submission to authority, that they never let you forget even for a microsecond, you start to question your own humanity, and that is the first step towards thoughts of suicide. Soldiers are people too.

    August 20, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Report abuse |
  2. banasy©

    Hey, CNN, I think you mean "decreasing" in the first sentence, unless that really *is* what the Army is hoping for...

    August 20, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • JeffinIL

      Good catch. I read it as "decreasing" but it's not. I guess it fooled my context filter.

      August 20, 2012 at 12:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • PFCSnuffy

      The term increasing comes after, solution to. This should be read as: the SOLUTION to increasing suicide and depression rate. Still a flub but not the flub you perceive it to be.

      August 20, 2012 at 12:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • les

      You are reading it wrong...

      August 20, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bill

      No, they meant increasing. But I agree it's a poorly worded sentence.

      August 20, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • jackola

      Could REVERSING THE increasing suicide and depression TREND among members of the U.S. military lie in a nasal spray?

      August 20, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Caryn

      I was about to say that....why would they want to increase the suicide rate...looks likes someones editor might be fired....

      August 20, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • More

      les, it says,
      "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." How is that reading it wrong?

      August 20, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim

      You are reading it wrong. The word "increasing" is an adjective describing "suicide and depression rates". The "increasing suicide and depression rates" is the problem, which the nasal spray is intended to solve. I'm surprised in the number of people who think the phrase "the solution to" should be followed by a description of the desired outcome. The phrase "the solution to" should be followed by a description of the problem. Therefore, saying "the solution to lifelong happiness" is incorrect, as it implies that you would like to solve the problem of lifelong happiness.

      August 20, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Addy Tracker

      A simple word could dispell any confusion..."Could the solution to THE increasing suicide and depression rates among members of the U.S. military lie in a nasal spray?

      August 20, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Tatonka72usn

    Awesome...leave it to the Army (and DOD in general) to seek ways to medicate away symptons rather than tackling the real issue. This is simply a quick fix to put a band-aid on a hemmorage, with little concern for 2nd & 3rd order effects down the road. Meh...

    August 20, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Report abuse |
  4. dotdashx4

    The solution is to bring these kids home. If this nasal spray does anything it will only gloss over what everyone knows. We are involved in illegal wars of aggression, our troops know it, and they are not capable of handling it because most of them are decent human beings.

    August 20, 2012 at 12:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • JeffinIL

      Afghanistan is not and illegal war of aggression. Iraq most certainly is. Both, however, are over and there is no reason for our continued presence.

      August 20, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Report abuse |
  5. chrissy

    Good afternoon banasy, obama mama and pass the popcorn. Im kinda on the fence about this idea. Are these soldiers going to have a say so in whether they get this or is it going to be mandatory? Because if its mandatory, its just wrong on to many levels.

    August 20, 2012 at 12:13 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Martin

    One sure-fire way to eliminate depression in our troops in Afghanistan would be to bring them home. But, then of course that would be too easy...

    August 20, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Me

    @Jake That is NOT why troops are commiting suicide. Stats have shown high ranking Officers and NCO's are amoung the victims. Let me guess, Generals are the reason for PTSD??? Get a life.

    August 20, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Jeff

    "Should we just get the h3ll out of the war business?"

    "No! Just squirt some happy up their noses and let 'em keep fighting!"

    August 20, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Report abuse |
  9. PFCSnuffy

    The aim of the nasal spray will depend on the soldiers communicating their suicidal ideation with their chain of command. Once alerted the spray will be administered. This will not be a straight across the board pretreatment to a symptom that hasn't occurred yet. It should only be used on a case by case situation.

    August 20, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Report abuse |
  10. chrissy

    My mind of course immediately went back in time to American soldiers being subjected to agent orange that the military used. The affects of that fiasco turned into devastation for many.

    August 20, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Tom

    Why wouldn't you be depressed there? You're supposed to be fighting a war, but on what and who? And you're supposed to do it without any civilian casualties. Then when it's over, we turn it back over to the same corruption that we were fighting in the first place. The whole consept is stupid. It's time we worry about or own countries issues and not enforcing our supposed democracy on the rest of the world.

    August 20, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Report abuse |
  12. OtherSF.

    Army needs more PT. Healthy body is healthy mind. That's it.

    August 20, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Report abuse |
  13. uhhhhhh

    Ok so just so everyone knows if you are horribly depressed and suicidal; the first two weeks of starting antidepressants you have to be heavily monitored. Most people who are suicidal are so depressed they don't have the motivation to carry out the sucide, and taking antidepressants for the first time usually gives them the motivation to do it. If this goes into effect and they see a giant spike in suicides theres your answer.

    August 20, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Bill

    I feel like blowing my brains out. Quick! Hand me my inhaler!!!!!

    August 20, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Report abuse |
  15. DP

    Try not putting them in a situation where they go months, years at a time wondering if they could be blown up any moment.

    August 20, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • uysfl

      you do realize they are in the military right? it's not the peace core, their job is to fight, if you would have served you would understand that fact.

      August 20, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Report abuse |
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