The Defense Department on Friday signed the Brandon Act, which aims to improve how service members receive mental health care, the start of what advocates say is a long-delayed process to implement a policy that will save many lives.
During a ceremony at the Pentagon, the agency’s under secretary for personnel and readiness, Gilbert R. Cisneros Jr., signed the policy, which expedites mental health evaluations and provides a confidential channel for service members to self-report mental health issues.
The measure was named after Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandon Caserta, 21, who died by suicide in 2018. It was championed by his parents, Teri and Patrick, who said they fulfilled their son's dying wish to help others.
“It cements his legacy of saving lives forever," Patrick said.
Caserta was a naval squadron flight electrician serving a helicopter sea combat unit at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia when he killed himself. In a suicide note, Caserta blamed the Navy, saying he had been constantly bullied and abused by a toxic command that denied his requests for mental health services.
“There’s still more to be done," his father said, "but this is the start."
President Joe Biden signed the Brandon Act into law in December 2021 under the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act.
The Defense Department said it is still "diligently working to implement" the policy, but it is unclear when it will be rolled out across the entire military.
The agency said implementation of the policy will occur in two phases. In the first phase, which should be implemented within 45 days, it said the services will establish procedures for service members on active duty. In the second phase, the services will establish procedures for service members not serving on active duty.
“Our greatest strength is our people, and we are committed to their well-being,” Cisneros said.
The Casertas say the policy will be critical in curbing mental health challenges in the Navy in particular. The branch has experienced several clusters of suicides across commands since last spring.
Unlike in the civilian world, where people can seek mental health care without their employers’ knowledge, sailors have to inform their superiors and wait for the next available appointment with military medical providers, a process that can take weeks, according to several military law attorneys and veterans.
The Brandon Act is a "cultural shift" that is essential in reducing suicides in the services and the stigma surrounding mental health that is significantly amplified in the military, said M. David Rudd, a psychologist in Memphis, Tennessee, who specializes in military and veteran suicide prevention.
“It’s really good to see movement in that direction. But, at the same time, it's a reminder of how slow the system moves," Rudd said. "With every month that it moves that slowly, innumerable lives are affected.”
In 2021, the most recent year for which full data is available, 519 service members died by suicide, according to the Defense Department.
More than 456,000 active-duty service members were diagnosed with at least one mental health disorder from 2016 through 2020, according to Defense Department statistics cited by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. About 64% of the diagnoses were attributed to adjustment disorders, anxiety disorders and depressive disorders.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also call the network, previously known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.