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. A Thompson

    Any relation to Ketamine and the Glutamate pathway???

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

    Just hand out Emergency Suicide Joints.

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

    CNN – The first line of your story reads "INCREASE suicide and depression rates...." I'd suggest you change that pretty quick. Thanks.

    August 20, 2012 at 12:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jessica

      Meaning the rates have been increasing and they are asking if the solution could be a nasal spray...

      August 20, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Karen

      Yeah, I had to read that one several times as well. The answer is to read what you write out loud before you hit the Publish key...maybe the author and editors would have caught it had they done that.

      August 20, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Report abuse |
  4. chrissy

    Also i BELIEVE they need to do some research on care given to veterans at these VA hospitals. Its not exactly the best care IMO!

    August 20, 2012 at 12:29 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Tara

    ...or at lease reword the first line. It's poorly written.

    August 20, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Dwayne

    that's pathetic, give them marijuana, they did it in Vietnam.

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

      RIGHT! I don't understand why they don't let soldiers smoke...

      I can tell you 100% shooting under the influence of booze or even a hangover is almost impossible- and since there's nothing else available to them booze is all too prevalent...

      Shooting under the influence of marijuana is VERY easy. I would say that if I was going to cruise into a dicey situation pot would make it a LOT easier, 'cause I'd be all calm and still...

      August 20, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Report abuse |
  7. am

    Pull our boys and girls out of the middle east. Bring them home. Give them the health care they deserve

    August 20, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Sir Rick

    Let 'em get prescriptions for THC capsules. THC gets rid of the night terrors and gives 'em nice restful sleep...

    August 20, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Jill

    We should use terms that are accurate. These "treatments", "nasal sprays", and "therapies" are nothing more than pharmaceutical chemicals. SSRIs and other heavy-duty opiates are rampaging their way through our society by virtue of such double-speak.

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

      eah, but this is a hormone that already exists in the body, so in this case, that point is moot.

      August 20, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Report abuse |
  10. More

    How about the solution to THE increasing...

    August 20, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Bongo™

    Are SSRIs safe?

    August 20, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pogo

      If used correctly in the way they were intended, yes. Used and abused, no. Just like any other substance.

      August 20, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pogo

      And this isn't an SSRI, so again it's moot.

      August 20, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Real Patriot

    when they say "army considers" you know theyve already given it to thousands of them

    August 20, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
  13. SeeThruIt2

    The suicide rates will only increase as we get closer to the 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan. Soldiers forced to stay there and seeing no resolution or improvement in the situation just lose hope. And knowing that we'll withdraw leaving the country in the same mess they face today brings the question of "why am I here?"

    People need a potentially reachable goal they believe in. And just putting in your time there for a hopeless cause is depressing.

    August 20, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Report abuse |
  14. xray

    1 in 4 who served in afghan or iraq apply for disability. Pay them for the rest of their lives.
    Imagine if they fought on russian east front, or vietnam, or Dien Bien Phu? 25% of our soldiers were defeated by
    Iraqi irregulars? Something really stinks.

    August 20, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • JC

      Very good points......

      August 20, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pogo

      War is war and war is bloody helll. Unless you know firsthand what went/goes on, you should peobably keep those silly thoughts to yourself. What? You want them to come back and suicide themselves to save you a bit of taxpayer money? You pulled that figure outta your patootie, didntcha?

      August 20, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Leeah Wright

      The survival rate from traumatic injuries have increased greatly since the campaigns you mentioned. This contributes to the statistic, as one cannot apply for disability if they are KIA.

      August 20, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Corey

    I've never met a depressed stoned person. A dose of ecstasy every now and then might help as well. That is what it was originally used for until people realized it was fun to party on. Anyone who has experienced ecstasy knows what I'm talking about. For those of you who have never tried either and are against them you really don't know what happens so how can you come to your conclusion? And FYI anything can be abused. Just because some abuse something doesn't mean that everyone in society needs to be punished. Because when things are illegal they are more dangerous then if they were legal and held to a certain standard. It doesn't matter how many laws are on the books or how many billions of dollars of tax payers money we waste. People will always use drugs. Once everyone realizes that maybe then we can have a serious discussion on the topic.

    August 20, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • CM

      Only stupid people use drugs and there are plenty of stupid people in this world so drugs will always be a problem.

      August 20, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Corey

      I'm quite intelligent thank you very much. Although it's been years since I've done anything other than weed doesn't mean somehow I"m stupid. Most stupid people would still be stupid weather they use drugs or not. Although I agree people who abuse drugs are stupid. I would stop drinking in a heart beat before I would stop used pot. So you would rather people use harmful man made drugs rather than something as natural as pot?

      August 20, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • CM

      I actually don't have anything against pot. It's just like smoking tobacco and is just as harmful to your health. It's the idiots who do crack and meth I can't stand!

      August 20, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
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