Anonymity Could Help Mitigate Military Suicide

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(U.S. Air Force illustration/Kathryn R.C. Reaves)
(U.S. Air Force illustration/Kathryn R.C. Reaves)

Kathy Roth-Douquet is the CEO of Blue Star Families and a Marine Corps spouse.

This past June marked the two-year anniversary of the tragic death of Brandon Caserta, a United States Navy petty officer who took his own life at his base in Norfolk, Virginia.

Unfortunately, suicide is not a new phenomenon among active-duty service members. But there are actions that lawmakers can take to help those struggling with mental health issues -- and work to prevent future tragedy.

According to the most recent U.S. Department of Defense Annual Suicide Report (ASR) from 2019, Caserta was one of 325 active-duty service members and one of 68 sailors who died by suicide in 2018. The report also found a five-year increase in the suicide rate for active-duty troops -- jumping from 18.5 to 24.8 suicides per 100,000 members. We have yet to see the 2019 data, but we mustn't wait on numbers to act.

After his death, Caserta's parents and friends discovered personal notes in which Brandon attributed his suicide to persistent hazing and bullying from members and leaders of his Navy helicopter squadron. Brandon's parents, Patrick and Teri, believe their son saw no options for getting medical care or mental health services, given that his chain of command was aware of the bullying and was allegedly even part of their son's harassment.

Governing bodies are trying to address the issue. In October 2018, the Defense Department enacted a requirement for the ASR to increase reporting, transparency and accountability for the department's suicide prevention efforts. Its goals included implementing policy guidance and a special governance body; standardizing and advancing data and research; and partnering with other groups across the nonprofit and private sectors. The plans also increased focus on working with some of the military's most vulnerable -- young service members and members of the National Guard, along with family members who struggle as well.

While this is a step in the right direction, there's a core missing piece that needs to make its way into Congress' Fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.

Military spouses are all too aware of the challenges that come with addressing mental health issues for service members. A spouse of an active-duty service member participating in Blue Star Families' 2019 Military Family Lifestyle Survey explained, "No soldier with career aspirations will reveal true physical or mental health issues under the current system. No one. It is the number one reason we have injured soldiers, chronic pain, and unresolved mental instability, which leads to suicide."

Part of what's missing from the federal response is anonymity -- an effective method for members to seek help without fear of retribution from their command units. It is an issue brought to light in the investigation of Caserta's death, and it is backed up by data year after year.

In the 2019 MFL Survey, troops and spouses revealed that concerns about potential impacts on a service member's career were the most common reason for not seeking mental health treatment for those who had seriously considered suicide or had attempted suicide in the past year -- and that spans across active-duty, National Guard and Reserve family respondents.

The Brandon Act, introduced in June by Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and named in honor of Caserta, would require the DoD to establish a standard phrase that service members can use anonymously to initiate a mandatory and immediate mental health evaluation referral, while receiving confidential evaluations without notifying their commands. The act was successfully included in the House's version of the NDAA but has yet to be included in the final NDAA.

In our fight to reduce suicide among service members and support the mental health and well-being of our active-duty, Reserve, National Guard and veterans, it is critical for the Brandon Act to be included in the final fiscal 2021 NDAA. We are halfway there: We must call upon Congress to act and finish the job in order to protect those service members who sacrifice for us.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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