Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius are scheduled Friday to address a conference in Washington on suicide prevention in the military.

The annual conference sponsored by the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs heard Thursday from a panel of family members who spoke of the military services’ failure to provide appropriate and timely mental health care to servicemembers who had sought help.

There were 154 suicides among active-duty troops in the first 155 days of the year, according to a recent report from the Associated Press, a number that is 50 percent higher than the number of U.S. forces killed in action in Afghanistan over that time period, and is the highest rate in 10 years of war.

The stories told by the family panel members run counter to the prevailing wisdom that the biggest hurdle in trying to prevent suicide in the military is the stigma associated with seeking help, noted Bonnie Carroll, president and founder of Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a military family group that organized the panel.

On Wednesday, VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki spoke of the need to challenge assumptions about military suicides. “Are we asking the right questions about suicides?” he asked conference attendees, who include many caregivers from DoD and VA.

The conference at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington concludes Friday.