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. Pastor Evans

    The Soldiers need Jesus Christ! He is the only answer!

    Pastor Evans
    Retired U.S. Army

    August 20, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Trak

      What an extremely narrow minded point of view. Spiritual beliefs are not a cure all for mental disorders.

      August 20, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
  2. jhalldor

    Maybe instead of nose spray?

    Stop all of these insane wars fought for the selfish interests of the neo-cons and their delusion of "policeman of the world."

    Soldiers sign up to defend the USA, not to be used as cannon fodder to defend the borders of countries across the world. Time to change our foreign policy to a rational sustainable model that we can afford and that our brave soldiers can defend.

    August 20, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
  3. lester

    Maybe it's ok to be depressed...maybe it's ok to want to leave this earth...maybe it's not ok to have military people snort a concoction of pharmaceuticals to feel ok...

    August 20, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Gina

    Has anyone stopped to think that the reason suicide rates are so much higher is that now the military and VA are actually recording suicides for the first time – EVER?

    August 20, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
  5. bob

    If you have to issue happy spray to keep Soldiers from killing themselves, it sounds like being in the Army officially sucks.

    August 20, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pha-Q

      One of the best comments I've heard in a long time! Good one. Your comment only made if official.

      August 20, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
  6. oh please

    lets NOT actually address the PROBLEM
    lets COVER IT UP with a nasal spray

    August 20, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
  7. chrissy

    @ AVeteranswife, you are EXACTLY right! Thats what i meant earlier when i said they need to work on the care Veterans get at a VA hospital. They are enti tled to the BEST care, and ONLY the BEST should be acceptable!

    August 20, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
  8. oh please

    funny how my comment is now gone and I just saw it
    the army typically covers up problems INSTEAD OF addressing the problems
    lets NOT Deal with the suicide problem, WHY IS IT HAPENING
    lets use a cover up spray

    August 20, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
  9. momo0828

    LOL. Why not just use cocaine!

    August 20, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
  10. The dude

    How about instead of covering up and band-aiding depression and suicidal feelings, we work on the root of these issues. There is a reason for these problems and the increase of them and no amount of temporary fix will actually solve anything. These are human beings that need help not more drugs.

    August 20, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim - Tampa

      The military cannot focus the root causes because the real horror is worse than the suicides.

      August 20, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • RodRoderick

      The real problem is politicians that the soldiers can't trust telling them to go kill people they don't know.

      August 20, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
  11. frank

    how about a nasal spray to stop a person from turning gay.

    August 20, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Paa the Popcorn

      People don't "turn" gay. What a dumb thing to say.

      August 20, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Prefchr

      Or maybe they could invent a spray that will make you less of an idiot!

      August 20, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Report abuse |
  12. SkeptikWatch

    SO creepy!

    "Happy" spray? Next we'll have "obedience" spray, "submissive" spray, the list is endless. Then we'll see huge spray dispensers in all major cities. George Orwell would be SO proud.

    August 20, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
  13. William Demuth

    Perhaps our recruting standards are playing a part?

    To convince someone who is on the fringes what they are being asked to do is important and valued enough for them to kill and risk being killed for, only to have them return home and find that no one cares must be tough.

    We lie to these kids, and then after they have destroyed themselves we wonder why.

    August 20, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
  14. My Side of Depression

    We continue to focus on the band aid fix at the end of the depression meter, suicide. Why are their no studies determining the start and prevention? I suffer and have found in my conversations with many, that it begins with a “moral injustice that is perceived to be inescapable”. Using that definition it’s understandable why so many people (both civilian and military) are suffering with depression. Recognition of the enemy is the key to defeating it. Understanding and education by both those inflicted and those interacting with the inflicted are key. People with good intentions can drive someone closer to suicide through lack of understanding of this disease. Drugs are a tool but they are not the answer.

    August 20, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Master of Puppies

    Philosophical concerns, and justified fears for the future misuse of (an existing) technology aside. Anything to help a man in the desert, or off duty at victory... Right now its a good thing to help as many of our men and women stay alive any way we can.

    August 20, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
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