Commanders are now required to assist troops in getting help as soon as possible to prevent suicides
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The Gazette, Colorado Springs
LOCAL & STATE
Commanders across the military are now required to help troops get mental health care as soon as possible to help prevent suicides under a new law called the Brandon Act. It’s designed to address an often reported concern of commanders preventing service members from trying to get help, explained retired Army Lt. Col. Damian Mccabe, director of behavioral health for Uchealth’s southern region. He is also leading a pilot project to reduce veteran suicides. As an officer for 24 years, Mccabe heard how commanders would suggest subordinates needed to wait to seek mental health care or told them to “suck it up.” The commanders’ instructions likely did not come from meanness or spite, he said, but rather the cultural belief that seeking care would be a sign of weakness. In military culture “weakness is something that has to be addressed and trained out of individuals,” he said. For years, the military has worked to equate seeking help with strength as it has seen deaths by suicide rise. It’s a problem with no single root cause or solution, the Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said earlier this month, but the DOD is working to promote connectedness, belonging and community as part of its prevention work. In 2016, 280 active duty troops died by suicide, a number that rose through 2020 when 383 troops died by suicide. The number came down a bit in 2021, when 327 troops died by suicide. Last year, 332 troops died by suicide. The Army has seen the highest number of deaths and it is also the largest branch. This data does not include suicides in the reserves or National Guard. In Colorado Springs, 11 active-duty troops died off base last year and 12 active-duty troops have died off base through the end of August, El Paso County Coroner Leon Kelly said. The coroner’s office cannot track suicide deaths on the five bases. Among those who died nationally was Naval Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandon Caserta, who took his own life in 2018 after working for a leading petty officer in Norfolk, Va., who treated his staff like dogs, according to a letter he wrote prior to his death. After his death, his parents worked to pass the Brandon Act and ensure those in need of help could get it immediately. Passed in late 2021, the act is now reaching implementation across the military’s branches. In the Air Force, the Brandon Act requires commanders to call mental health clinics on base and give them the name and contact information for a service member and ask the staff to contact the individual and set them up with an appointment, said Maj. Timothy Pagano, with the 21st Medical Group that serves Peterson and Schriever Space Force bases and Cheyenne Mountain Space Force Station. In the past, commanders could only request evaluations that covered job fitness rather than general care. The new method can help build on positive relationships between airmen, guardians and supervisors who might be able to encourage someone who is nervous about coming in for help for the first time, he said. “So they’re really able to harness that relationship and say, ‘Hey, I’m happy to help you out with that. Let me make the call for you,’” he explained. The Air Force is committed to setting up appointments within 24 hours under the Brandon Act and the commanders are not involved in or informed about care after the first call is made, he said. Peterson and Schriever implemented the Brandon Act last month, Pagano said, and trained leaders across the installations within a week. The clinic has seen some referrals to care thus far through the act, but none so far for crisis care. The most common reasons for referrals are anxiety and depression, Pagano said. The Space Force installations also have chaplains, military family life counselors and financial planners to support airmen and guardians. The Army said in a news release earlier this month leaders with the rank of staff sergeant or above are charged with quickly and confidentially connecting soldiers to care. Soldiers do not have to provide a reason to request a referral to care. The release did not provide a window for commanders to refer soldiers to care, saying instead “mental health providers will conduct the mental health evaluations as soon as possible.” Fort Carson referred all questions about the Brandon Act to the Pentagon, which supplied the news release. The post’s Installation Director of Psychological Health Lt. Col. Shamecca Scott also highlighted work the base has done to improve access to mental health care this summer, introducing a new pilot program to connect soldiers with the right level of care for their needs. Through the pilot, known as the Targeted Care Initiative, a behavioral health technician provides soldiers with information about their care options, such as military and family life counselors and non-medical counselors through Military Onesource, she said in a written statement. Soldiers can also be scheduled for a behavioral health appointment. Evans Army Community Hospital has a range of services, such as an addiction medicine outpatient program, psychological health intensive outpatient program and inpatient behavioral health unit. Service members can also receive referrals for care offpost, such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, an evidence-based treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. For family members of those serving and struggling with mental health conditions, the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Colorado Springs is restarting free classes taught by peers with similar experiences. “NAMI classes offer a safe space to talk about challenges people are experiencing, including thoughts of suicide. We can’t prevent suicide unless we talk about suicide,” said Angela Sweeten, family program coordinator with the nonprofit in town. She noted that those struggling with thoughts of suicide can find relief in talking about it, being taken seriously and being provided with support. “Starting that conversation could literally save someone’s life,” she said. The classes also cover problem solving and communication, managing crisis, taking care of yourself and managing your stress, supporting loved ones, up-to-date information on mental health conditions and how they affect the brain, among other topics. The next class for 15 to 20 participants will start during the end of January. NAMI also offers weekly support groups for those living with mental health conditions and their family members. More info about classes and support groups can be found at namicoloradosprings.org/.