Army Secretary Christine Wormuth signed new instructions for soldiers this week that are intended to improve access to mental health treatment by allowing them to request an immediate referral for an evaluation from a supervisor or commander.
Following a months-long delay in implementing a Defense Department policy announced in May, Wormuth issued a memorandum to Army commands dated Aug. 29 that institutes the Brandon Act, allowing troops to request a mental health assessment without having to provide any reason or basis.
Under the policy, entitled "Self-Initiated Referral Process for Mental Health Evaluation of Soldiers," soldiers can request a referral through their commander or supervisor of the rank of staff sergeant and above who, in turn, must ensure that an appointment occurs "as soon as practicable" and must follow up to make sure the service member is aware of the date, time and location of the evaluation.
The policy stems from a provision in the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act named for Navy Aviation Electrician's Mate 3rd Class Brandon Caserta, who died by suicide in 2018, which required the Defense Department and the military services to institute a program that protects service members from repercussion or retaliation if they request a mental health evaluation through their leadership.
"I call on leaders to continue making it clear that taking care of your mental health and your family is encouraged," Wormuth said in a press release Thursday. "We must constantly look for additional ways to connect our soldiers with the necessary resources for their well-being, and the Army's new policy to implement the Brandon Act gives soldiers another tool to seek help while honoring the legacy of Petty Officer Caserta."
The Defense Department issued an instruction related to the law May 5, requiring the military services to draft and institute their Brandon Act policies within 45 days. Though the deadline was June 19, the Navy and Marine Corps announced their policy July 11, followed by the Air Force on Aug. 7.
The Army's delay in publishing its version sparked anger among advocates of the legislation, including Brandon Caserta's parents, Patrick and Teri Caserta. The Casertas lobbied for passage of the legislation and have spent much of the year pressing the services to implement the law.
Last week, the Casertas, through the Brandon Caserta Foundation, issued a harshly worded press release decrying the delay and saying it meant the Army wasn't serious about addressing suicide or mental health issues among soldiers.
On Tuesday, after the Casertas had gone public with their anger over the delay, an Army Office of Public Affairs spokesman told Military.com that the service was drafting its instruction. He did not mention that Wormuth signed it that day.
"The Army is working deliberately to finalize a new policy that will comply with the Brandon Act and will empower soldiers with additional avenues to seek help confidentially -- for any reason, at any time and in any environment -- with the goal of reducing the stigma associated with seeking mental health care," Bryce Dubee wrote in an email to Military.com.
The Aug. 29 memorandum was published late Thursday. A copy of it was obtained by Military.com earlier in the day.
"The United States Army fosters a culture of support to create an environment that promotes help-seeking behaviors and reduces the stigma for help-seeking in the provision of mental health care," Wormuth wrote in the memo.
The new Army policy calls for annual training on service members' rights to request a mental health evaluation and requires commanders to maintain privacy by not asking providers to share the results of the mental health examination, except in cases spelled out in Defense Department Instruction 6490.08.
Those exceptions include if a soldier is at risk for harm to themselves, others or the mission; needs inpatient care or substance abuse treatment; has an acute medical condition that interferes with duty; or in cases where the service member was required by the command to get a mental health evaluation, in addition to other special circumstances.
In the memo, Wormuth noted that service members do not need to wait for a referral for a mental health evaluation and can seek mental health treatment through their primary care doctor at a military medical facility at any time. They also have access to non-medical counseling or therapy from Military and Family Support Centers, Military OneSource, chaplains, and military and family life counselors.
Commanders also may continue to refer soldiers for a mental health evaluation if they deem that a service member needs one.
The Army's policy differs from the Air Force, Space Force, Navy and Marine Corps policies in that a supervisor is defined as an E-7 and above. The Air Force policy allows members to request a referral through someone with the rank of E-6 and above, while the Navy and Marine Corps have given E-5s the ability to take a self-referral.
The policy only applies to Army Reserve and Army National Guard members on active-duty orders for 30 days or more.
On Thursday, Patrick Caserta, a retired senior chief petty officer and combat veteran, said he was grateful to Wormuth and her staff for finally implementing the Brandon Act.
"We did not want our son to die in vain," Patrick Caserta said in an Army press release. "We are in the life-saving business, and we will remain in this business the rest of our lives. We thank the secretary of the Army and her staff for implementing this policy."
If you are a service member or veteran who needs help, it is available 24/7 at the Veterans and Military Crisis Line, call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org, or through the online chat function at www.veteranscrisisline.net.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter and Threads @patriciakime.