WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Friday promised a new focus on suicide prevention by military leaders, not just to benefit troops and veterans but also the country as a whole.

“My long-term goal is for the Department of Defense to be a game-changing innovator in this field,” he said during remarks at an annual interagency suicide prevention conference. “Just as we helped foster the jet age, the space race and the Internet, I want us to break new ground in understanding the human mind.”

Panetta was the third Cabinet official to speak at the three-day conference, designed to bring the nation’s top mental health experts together to discuss research and solutions to the growing problem of military and veterans suicides.

But officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Pentagon framed the problem not simply as an outgrowth from a decade of war but also as a serious national mental health crisis.

Statistics from 2008 Department of Health and Human Services data shows that 10.3 million Americans contemplated suicide at least once that year, with nearly half of that group working out detailed plans on how to kill themselves.

Department officials said they expect upcoming 2010 data to show even bleaker numbers.

Panetta also noted that more than half of the military’s suicide cases in recent years come from servicemembers who never deployed to a combat zone.

“From substance abuse to financial distress and relationship problems, the risk factors for suicide also reflect problems in general society and will endure beyond the wars,” he said. “For that reason, we must develop an enduring suicide prevention strategy.”

Earlier in the week, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki also framed the problem as a national concern, noting that suicide is among the top 10 causes of death in the country today. For young men, it’s in the top three.

“Should we be surprised that recruits out of such a population, bearing some level of increased stress for much of the past decade, would experience suicides at some elevated level?” he asked.

But defense and veterans leaders acknowledged that the stress and pace of wartime operations have played a major role in a rise in suicide among military personnel. Earlier this month, Pentagon officials announced that 154 servicemembers took their own lives in the first 155 days of 2012, a sharp increase from the same period a year before.

Panetta called military suicides “the most frustrating challenge that I have come across since becoming secretary of defense” and said leaders will redouble efforts to stop that rising trend.

He pledged to improve the access to and quality of mental health care for troops, and to “elevate mental fitness to the same level of importance that DOD has always placed on physical fitness.”

Officials at the conference greeted the comments warmly, but acknowledged that the stigma associated with mental health care lingers for troops and veterans, despite intense public awareness efforts in recent years.

“We’re losing a generation of heroes because we’re not solving these [mental health] problems,” said Mike Turner, vice president of the nonprofit group Mental Health America.

Panetta said finding a lasting suicide prevention strategy will need to include both military and civilian efforts, combining new research with known response and prevention programs.

“There are no easy answers to the problem of suicide,” Panetta said. “But that is no damn reason for not finding the answers.”

shanel@stripes.osd.milTwitter: @LeoShane

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now