The Pentagon has started to implement a law that requires the provision of mental health services for help-seeking US troops amid a soaring number of suicide cases among active-duty forces.
The Brandon Act, passed into law as part of the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), requires the US military to provide a mental health evaluation if a service member self-reports a problem or seeks help.
The law, signed by Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Gilbert Cisneros, also allows service members and active-duty troops to seek confidential help outside the chain of command in an attempt to reduce the stigma around mental health.
The legislation languished for more than a year after its passage in 2022, with the Pentagon claiming that it was working on how best to put into effect the requirements of the act.
Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton, who sponsored the act, said in a statement. “Shame on the Pentagon bureaucrats who took 15 months, during which even more service members died by suicide, to make this happen. The DOD still has a lot of work to do to curb the shockingly high number of suicides among our young men and women who serve, but this is a big step in the right direction.”
The law was named after Brandon Caserta, a 21-year-old sailor who took his own life at US Naval Air Station Norfolk in June 2018. Brandon told his parents and his friends in several letters that he was constantly hazed and bullied in the Navy.
Teri Caserta, Brandon’s mother who leads an advocacy group fighting to end suicide deaths among active-duty troops and veterans, said his son had told his commanders that he was suffering from depression but they took no action.
“For over a year, I’ve been work with Brandon Caserta’s family to push the Department of Defense to implement the Brandon Act, which will help service members access the mental health support they need,” Democratic Senator Tim Kaine said.
“The Casertas lost their son under unimaginably horrific circumstances and have turned their grief into an effort to help other service members. I’m glad DOD is finally implementing this important bill to honor Brandon and prevent future tragedies,” Kaine added.
Official reports said 519 US service members died by suicide in 2021, the latest year for which numbers are available. The figure showed a slight decrease from the previous year’s 582 suicides but the trend over the last decade and more has been increasing.
“Once implemented, service members will be able to request a mental health evaluation for any basis, by initiating a referral through a commanding officer or supervisor,” Lester Martinez-Lopez, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said in a statement on Friday.
“The new process will require the commander or supervisor to refer the service member to mental health provider and protect the confidentiality of the service member to the maximum extent practicable in accordance with applicable laws and DoD policy.”
In March, Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin announced the creation of an independent committee to review the military’s mental health and suicide prevention programs.
According to Pentagon data, suicides among active-duty service members increased by more than 40 percent between 2015 and 2020. The numbers jumped by 15 percent in 2020 alone.