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. fernace

    W/2 articles about suicide on the same day I'm gonna share a little experience, but first I want to ask are there studies on Why people want to take themselves out & What are the results? I would imagine it's a result of severe chronic & situational depression for a soldier! PTSD & anxiety/panic disorders are also an issue! These conditions can make living pure hell! The sad truth is that many people suffer from these disorders & others (bi-polarI & II), & it seems as far as meds it's a hit & miss! Many people go through the hit & miss period before they get the right pill or combo for them! These are facts! I've talked to too many people who have shared their stories, read the stories, too! I've heard about the nosespray before & glad to hear about it again! This could help a lot of people! Having said that, I also believe in other healing methods, such as therapy (solo/group), bio-feedback, herbs/vitamin/mineral/diet therapy, yoga/ meditation, hiking/excercise, finding religion, it all helps! Good Luck!!

    August 20, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Cam519

    So itll be a nasal spray that starts the zombie apocalypse then?

    August 20, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
  3. A Real Journalist

    Typical CNN...not editing or proofreading their stories. I certainly hope the Army does NOT hope their nasal spray will INCREASE suicide and depression rates...

    "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."

    August 20, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Sumo

    Instead of asking how we can chemically override soldiers' suicidal thoughts, wouldn't it be more wise to address why they want to commit suicide in the first place?

    August 20, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • jbsBoston

      Of course that should be the end goal, but if they can stop the suicides for now, then that's worth developing a new product. End goal – less war, fewer re-deployments...

      August 20, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Aveteranswife

      It is easier said than done, most veterans who seek help are turned away because the veterans hospital is under staffed and under funded. My husband has been asking for help for a long time, he had to threaten his doctor in order to get any help and he was diagnosed with PTSD and TBI. It is a crying shame that it must come to so many men and women having to kill them selves before anyone notices there is a problem and them they try and brush it under the rug.

      August 20, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Doug

      That is crazy talk. How dare you make sense!

      August 20, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • DustyFox

      It's never quite that simple. Environmental, emotional, and behavioral aspects work in a team effort against a person, driving a spiral of continued thoughts and behaviors that are self-perpetuating toward a single idea; which is a long-winded way of saying people in that state of mind, as resistant as they try to be, are often left feeling hopeless. Why fight to live or even make the effort when you're convinced that being dead is better?

      This seems more like a means to stop the bleeding before really treating the wound.

      August 20, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
  5. saywhat

    And the side effects of these nasal sprays would perhaps be known a decade or so later if they come into play.
    More havoc with the lives of those that are persuaded to take them.
    Since the killing game would go on as more battle fields are added, these sprays or their kind would become standard equipment for soldiers.

    August 20, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Andy

    There are also a lot of returning Soldiers that are not getting the care or assistance that they need. Many veterans are unemployed or just scraping by. Some, like myself, have a very difficult time adjusting to civilian society, some of us don't want to. Deployment was probably one of the happiest times of my life. Sad as it may sound, I had my mission, I knew what it was and I was damned good at getting it done. People were tightly knit and I had a far better time than I do now in the civilian world as a recruiter. I would give away my personal belongings in a heartbeat if I was told I could go to Afghanistan and do my job again.

    The answer isn't in a nasal spray or anything like that. I honestly believe that moving the US to a regimental system, similar to what the Brits have, would do us a world of good. British regiments tend to be tighter knit, do shorter tours and are more careful about not committing warcrimes and attrocities. The reason has nothing to do with the average Brit being a better person. The reason is that your local support network is there at war with you, most lads come from at least the same area of the nation. They are proud not only to fight for the United Kingdom, but also for their particular regiment. Part of the problem and the way Soldiers fall through the cracks is because we are shuffled around like spare parts. NCO's do an amazing job of building cohesion as it is, but when Soldiers are tossed around all the time it is easy to lose someone.

    August 20, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pastor Evans

      Andy most American citizens have never served so they do not understand where you are coming from. You have to be able adjust without compromise, as many of our American civilians do.

      August 20, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Portland tony

      Agree .....I also think that some young men return home expecting to pick up life as they left it...forgetting that they themselves, their friends and loved ones ......have all matured and changed in varying ways over time. With fewer jobs available, with friends gone, and no local support group, it's very possible a returning service man could feel lost, used up and worthless.

      August 20, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Canada

    As a Canadian who doesn't give a crap about your politics, he's right. the Right-wingers and that tea party group and nutjobs.

    August 20, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
  8. ComputerScienceStudent

    "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"

    – Wow CNN, that college edumucation really comes in handy, doesn't it?

    August 20, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
  9. KeithInVa

    Inhaled neurochemicals? BRILLIANT! I can say with all confidence that nothing like that exists in the world, and that nothing could possibily go wrong.

    August 20, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
  10. c s

    The Army is seeing the high number of suicides because it is the Army that is doing the on ground fighting and dying in Afghanistan and Iraq. Multiple combat tours just wear out anyone. If our country insists on never ending wars, then the Army should be expanded so that most or all of the Army fighters have only one combat tour unless they volunteer for more. During the Vietnam war most combat soldiers only had a single tour of a year. It has long been known that most people can only take about a year of combat without getting PTSD. Ron Paul wants to end this ceaseless use of American troops everyone in the world. Bring our troops home..

    August 20, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Sy2502

    So a joint is illegal and this isn't?

    August 20, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rebecca

      I think the difference here is the type of drug involved.

      August 20, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
  12. rrmon

    Reminds me of a movie, "Max Payne"

    August 20, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Rebecca

    If we're "not willing to pay for" the screening process, how are we then to determine who requires such a drug? Yes, there is a need for antidepressants that take effect sooner than 4-6 weeks (in both military and civilian populations) but the more pressing issue here is that the military needs to combat the stigma associated with asking for help.

    August 20, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Hot Carl

    Just take away their guns! Oh, wait.......

    August 20, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Doug

    jbsBoston, the problem with that is if they find a stop gap measure, they have no incentive to actually try to help these men and women. This nasal spray wont suddenly make them not want to commit suicide. At best, it may surpress the feeling for awhile. Then what? They are addicted to the spray. And either it starts having less of an effect or they move on to another drug to give the same feeling.

    August 20, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13