A set of new policies offering more confidentiality to sailors seeking mental health care was approved by Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro this week, USNI News has learned.
The policies, the results of the Brandon Act, named for Aviation Electrician’s Mate 3rd Class Brandon Caserta who died by suicide in 2018, will allow sailors to request a referral for mental health services through any commander or supervisor.
Under the Brandon Act, service members do not have to disclose why they need mental health services, with confidentiality protected as much as possible. Commanders and supervisors must make the referral as soon as possible, allowing service members to get help more quickly, according to a fact sheet put out by the Defense Health Agency.
Del Toro signed the new instruction on Monday. The service-wide ALNAV message will be released later this week, Navy spokesperson Lt. Andrew Bertucci told USNI News. Del Toro called Brandon Caserta’s parents while he signed it, his parents told USNI News in an interview.
“Secretary Del Toro has engaged with Petty Officer Caserta’s family previously related to mental health awareness,” a Navy spokesperson said in a statement. “He believes it is essential for leaders throughout the Department of the Navy to remain engaged at all levels on this important issue. We live up to the commitment of normalizing mental health conversations and focusing on mental fitness by paying attention to our people and their families.”
The Navy is the first service to implement the act, which was signed into law in December 2021, as part of the Fiscal Year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, Patrick Caserta, Brandon Caserta’s father and a retired sailor, told USNI News.
For Teri and Patrick Caserta, the implementation of the Brandon Act has been a years-long process. The couple started working on the act shortly after their son died by suicide in 2018 while stationed in Norfolk.
Brandon Caserta joined the Navy with the ultimate goal of leaving the service to become a police officer. He planned to become a SEAL in order to gain the skills he would need to be part of the police force, Patrick Caserta said.
Brandon Caserta was released from his SEAL contract during Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training. Brandon Caserta then went through the rerate process, and with his father’s help, he selected the aviation electrician rating, Teri Caserta said. That led him to his command in Norfolk.
Brandon described the command as toxic in letters to his parents, the Casertas said. In the letters that Brandon Caserta wrote before his death, posted on the Brandon Act website, he details how the rerate process and his time in the Navy led to a depression he felt would never go away.
Had the Brandon Act been in place, Brandon Caserta would have gotten help, his parents said. His command could not have told him to “suck it up,” Teri Caserta said.
The confidentiality portion of the Brandon Act will also help address stigma, which prevents people in the military from getting help, out of fear of retribution, his parents said.
The Casertas also requested that the act include no retaliation can happen for seeking mental health, the possibility of switching commands if the command is found to have driven a service member to suicide ideation and accountability if a command’s actions lead to a suicide, although it did not end up in the final language.
The accountability portion is something the Casertas are still fighting for, they said. Brandon Caserta knew he had the option to get out of the service, his father said, but he was worried that the command would retaliate and make it so he left with a dishonorable discharge.
Patrick Caserta was a recruiter for the Navy, and he said during his time mental health was not properly addressed but under the new policy junior officers and enlisted sailors can get help more easily.
Ultimately, the act will make sure sailors and service members can reach the services that are provided by the military, Patrick Caserta said. The two wish it had taken less time to be implemented because there are service members whose lives might have been saved by it.
And for the command, which they feel let down their son in life and death, the Brandon Act means they cannot keep someone else from getting the resources they need, the Casertas said.
“Not that we are after revenge, we just want accountability,” Teri Caserta said.
Suicide continues to be an ongoing issue within the Navy, and the military at large. In April 2022, three sailors assigned to USS George Washington (CVN-73) died by suicide within a week of each other while the ship was in an extended repair period. Those deaths led to two investigations, which highlighted the overwhelmed mental health system for ships in maintenance.
In January 2023, the Naval Audit Service released a report on the Navy’s suicide prevention program, which found failures, including that the 21st Century Sailor Office (N17) did not track all suicide-related behaviors and it did not track suicide ideation. The audit also revealed that the Navy did not have a way to ensure all sailors completed suicide prevention training.
The Navy had 72 suicides in FY 2022, according to suicide data provided by the Department of Defense. In FY 2021, the Navy saw 58 suicides, with a suicide rate of 16.7 deaths per 100,000 sailors, according to the DOD Annual Suicide Prevention Report, which has FY 2021 as the most recent.
The Navy has had 14 suicides in the first quarter of FY 2023, the most recent data available in line with last year’s totals.
Suicide Prevention Resources
The Navy Suicide Prevention Handbook is a guide designed to be a reference for policy requirements, program guidance, and educational tools for commands. The handbook is organized to support fundamental command Suicide Prevention Program efforts in Training, Intervention, Response, and Reporting.
The 1 Small ACT Toolkit helps sailors foster a command climate that supports psychological health. The toolkit includes suggestions for assisting sailors in staying mission ready, recognizing warning signs of increased suicide risk in oneself or others, and taking action to promote safety.
The Lifelink Monthly Newsletter provides recommendations for sailors and families, including how to help survivors of suicide loss and to practice self-care.
The Navy Operational Stress Control Blog “NavStress” provides sailors with content promoting stress navigation and suicide prevention.