A common dietary supplement could be a new weapon against the growing rate of suicide in the military and among veterans.

Local researchers have landed a $10 million grant from the Military Operational Medicine Joint Program Committee to study the effect of omega-3 fatty acid supplements on veterans who are at risk for suicide.

The Medical University of South Carolina, Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center and National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism are participating in the project.

More than 300 veterans will drink “omega-3 smoothies” twice a day for six months. The study will run for the next three years, said Ron Acierno, a co-principal investigator on the project.

Acierno, who holds dual appointments at MUSC and the VA, said he thinks the research will demonstrate that veterans who have suicidal ideas and thoughts will improve after they begin taking large doses of the supplement.

“Past studies indicate that negative emotional states respond to high doses of omega-3 fatty acid supplements,” he said.

And the military supports the research because the rate of suicide and suicide attempts among soldiers is shockingly high, he said.

There have been 131 possible suicides among active-duty soldiers so far this year, 26 of them occurring in July, a particularly tragic month, according to the Department of Defense.

The suicide rate among the nation’s active-duty soldiers this year has eclipsed the number of troops dying in combat, Acierno said.

Veterans in the study will continue to receive other medications and treatments for depression and other emotional conditions, he said. The omega-3 supplements will be given in addition to those treatments.

The supplements likely would help many civilians struggling with certain mental health issues, he said. But it makes sense to test their impact on veterans because their rate of depression and suicide is so high.

Dr. Hugh Myrick, the VA’s chief of mental health and another researcher on the project, said he also is optimistic that the supplements will be effective. “Anything we can do to reduce the risk (of suicide), we’ve got to look at it,” he said.

With many other medications, doctors have to consider the benefit the drug will bring the patient compared with the impact of the side effects he or she could suffer. But patients won’t suffer side effects with the omega-3 supplements, he said. And they also are inexpensive.

He thinks the impact on soldiers and reservists serving multiple tours is leading to increased rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, which in turn is leading to higher rates of suicide among veterans. He also said the slow economy is bringing more older veterans to the VA for services. Many of them also struggle with depression and other mental health issues.

But the VA has recently ramped up services, he said. Five years ago, it had 72 staffers who helped veterans with mental health concerns. Today, the department has a staff of 231.

It’s likely that many of those coming through the doors of that department eventually could be helped with omega-3 fatty acid supplements, Myrick said. And the research could be expanded to the general public.

“This is going to be unbelievable if it works.”

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.