USNI News has learned that Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro this week approved a series of new guidelines that offer greater confidentiality to seafarers seeking mental health care.
The guidelines, the outcome of the Brandon Act, named after Aviation Electrician’s Mate 3rd Class Brandon Caserta, who committed suicide in 2018, allow seafarers to apply for a mental health services referral from any commander or supervisor.
The Brandon Act does not require military personnel to disclose why they need mental health services, while confidentiality is protected as much as possible. Commanders and supervisors must make the referral as soon as possible so soldiers can get help more quickly, according to a Defense Health Agency fact sheet.
Del Toro signed the new directive Monday. The service-wide ALNAV message will be released later this week, Navy spokesman Lt. Andrew Bertucci to USNI News. Del Toro called Brandon Caserta’s parents while he was signing it, his parents said in an interview with USNI News.
“Secretary Del Toro has previously discussed mental health awareness with the family of Corporal Caserta,” a Navy spokesman said in a statement. “He believes it is critical for leaders across the Department of the Navy to continue advocacy at all levels on this important issue. We are living up to our commitment to normalize mental health conversations and focus on mental fitness by paying attention to our employees and their families.”
The Navy is the first service to implement the law signed in December 2021 as part of the Fiscal Year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, Patrick Caserta, Brandon Caserta’s father and a retired seaman, told USNI News.
For Teri and Patrick Caserta, implementing the Brandon Act was a year-long process. The couple began work on the act shortly after their son committed suicide while stationed in Norfolk in 2018.
Brandon Caserta joined the Navy with the goal of leaving the service and becoming a police officer. Patrick Caserta said he planned to become a SEAL to gain the skills he needed to serve in the police force.
Brandon Caserta was released from his SEAL contract during Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training. Brandon Caserta then went through the reassessment process and, with his father’s help, selected the aviation electrician rating, Teri Caserta said. This led him to his command in Norfolk.
Brandon described the order as toxic in letters to his parents, the Casertas said. In the letters Brandon Caserta wrote before his death, which were published on the Brandon Act website, he details how the reassessment process and his time in the Navy led to a depression he believed would never go away .
Had the Brandon Act been in place, Brandon Caserta would have gotten help, his parents said. His command couldn’t have told him to “give it up,” Teri Caserta said.
The confidentiality portion of the Brandon Act will also help combat stigma that prevents service members from getting help for fear of retribution, his parents said.
The Casertas also demanded that the law include no retaliation for mental health searches, the possibility of a change of command if the command is found to have driven a soldier to suicidal thoughts, and accountability if a commando’s actions result in a suicide, although this did not end up in the final language.
The accountability part is something the Casertas are still fighting for, they said. Brandon Caserta knew he had an opportunity to leave the service, his father said, but feared the command would retaliate and allow him to leave with a dishonorable discharge.
Patrick Caserta was a Navy recruiter and said mental health was not given enough attention during his tenure, but the new policy would make it easier for junior officers and enlisted sailors to get help.
Ultimately, the law will ensure that sailors and military personnel can take advantage of the services provided by the military, Patrick Caserta said. The two wished it had taken less time to implement as there are service members whose lives could have been saved as a result.
And as for the command, which they feel is abandoning their son to the death, the Brandon Act means they can’t stop anyone from getting the resources they need, the Casertas said.
“We’re not out for revenge, we just want accountability,” Teri Caserta said.
Suicide continues to be an ongoing problem within the Navy and the military at large. In April 2022, three Sailors were assigned to the USS george washington (CVN-73) committed suicide within a week while the ship was under an extended repair period. These deaths prompted two inquests that highlighted the overburdened mental health system for ships under maintenance.
In January 2023, the Naval Audit Service released a report on the Navy’s Suicide Prevention Program that found errors, among other things, that the 21st Century Sailor Office (N17) did not track all suicidal behaviors and suicidal thoughts. The audit also found that the Navy had no way of ensuring that all seafarers received suicide prevention training.
According to the Department of Defense, the Navy recorded 72 suicides in fiscal year 2022. Fiscal year 2021 saw 58 suicides in the Navy, with a suicide rate of 16.7 deaths per 100,000 sailors, according to the US Department of Defense (DOD) annual Suicide Prevention Report, whose most recent fiscal year is 2021.
The Navy recorded 14 suicides in the first quarter of fiscal 2023, the latest available data is last year’s totals.
Suicide Prevention Resources
National Lifeline for Suicide Prevention: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)
Military Crisis Number: 1-800-273-8255
The Navy Suicide Prevention Handbook is a Guide that serves as a reference for policy requirements, program guides, and instructional materials for commands. The manual is designed to support the Command’s fundamental suicide prevention program efforts in the areas of training, intervention, response and reporting.
The 1 Small ACT Toolkit helps sailors create a climate of command that supports mental health. The toolkit provides suggestions to help seafarers remain operational, recognize warning signs that they and others may be at risk of suicide, and take action to promote safety.
Lifelink’s monthly newsletter provides advice for seafarers and families, including how to help suicide survivors and practice self-care.
The Navy Operational Stress Control Blog, NavStress, provides seafarers with content on stress navigation and suicide prevention.