Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, expressing frustration that the numbers of military suicides “continue to move in a troubling and tragic direction,” told a conference in Washington Friday that the Pentagon must put the “mental fitness” of its troops on an equal plane with their physical fitness.

Army Capt. Ian Morrison and his wife, Rebecca, last year. He died by suicide in March. (Courtesy of Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors)

“There are no easy answers, but that is no damn reason for not finding the answer to the problem of suicide,” Panetta told attendees at the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs annual conference on suicide prevention in the military.

The conference heard Thursday from a panel of family members who spoke of what they said was 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. It 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.

“We were hearing about folks who said, ‘I want to get help, I want to be better, I have a lot to live for,’ but were not getting that help,” Carroll said.

In his address Friday morning, Panetta said that it is the responsibility of leaders from non-commissioned officers on up to ensure that troops showing signs of stress be “aggressively” encouraged to seek help.

“We have to make clear we will not tolerate actions that belittle, that haze individuals, particularly those who seek help,” he said.

Panetta said concerns about access to behavioral health care prompted his decision earlier this month to order a service-wide review of mental health diagnoses. The action followed an Army investigation into concerns that some soldiers had their diagnoses reversed because of the costs of caring for them.

Panetta also said he wants to make the Department of Defense a “game-changing innovator” on research in areas related to suicide prevention, including in post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury.

Speaking to the conference earlier Friday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the department’s strategy in combatting military suicide is to “collaborate and leverage resources across the federal government.”

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.