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News | Jan. 22, 2024

For Service Members, Access to Mental Health Care Streamlined Under Brandon Act

By C. Todd Lopez

Last year, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness signed policy implementing within the Defense Department and across the military services the requirements laid out under the Brandon Act.  

Within the DOD and military services, the Brandon Act allows service members to request a mental health evaluation just by making the request to their supervisor.  

Dr. Lester Martinez-Lopez, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said the Brandon Act is now accomplishing two things within the DOD and military services.  

First, he said, the act ensures that when a service member feels they need a mental health evaluation they need only ask their supervisor for that. Such a request can be made at any time and in any location. They also don't need to explain why they think they need a mental health evaluation. Their supervisor, in turn, will ensure that a mental health evaluation takes place as soon as possible and without any roadblocks.  

"If you're in garrison and mental health care is readily available, then it might just be a few hours," Martinez-Lopez said. "If you're on a ship in the middle of nowhere and you need mental health care, it might take a day or two and happen by telemedicine or some other way. But it doesn't matter where you are. All you need to do is raise your hand and tell your supervisor and they will take care of that as soon as possible."  

Privacy is also a key aspect of the Brandon Act, Martinez-Lopez said.  

"The second part is to make it easy and make it confidential, to keep that information — just like we keep any other medical information — confidential," he said. "The intent of that is to lower the shield from the standpoint of stigma. There are a lot of issues around the stigma of seeking mental health care. But like the secretary of defense says, mental health is health."  

Already there are a variety of avenues by which a servicemember can seek out mental health treatment, Martinez-Lopez said. But the Brandon Act has greatly simplified and sped up the process of helping service members get the treatment they need.  

Implementation of the requirements under the Brandon Act, in part, requires new training for the force, Martinez-Lopez said. All members of the armed forces, for instance, will need to understand that there is a new venue through which they can seek mental health care. That kind of training provides awareness of what's available under the Brandon Act.  

For supervisors who must respond to requests from their subordinates and follow through in ensuring that mental health care is made available, there will also need to be training.  

Taking care of your people is part of leadership. And mental health is part of taking care of people. So if you're a leader, this is not just a medical issue. This is a leadership issue and a leader needs to take ownership."
Dr. Lester Martinez-Lopez, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs

"The supervisors need to know what their responsibilities are under the act," he said. "They need to take this very seriously and know they are not done until that service member is taken care of for their mental health concern."  

Setting up and executing training so that service members and leaders know how to use and implement the Brandon Act is has been delegated to the individual services and is underway now.  

If DOD is successful in implementing the Brandon Act, one effect will be that the stigma of seeking mental health assistance is diminished, Martinez-Lopez said.  

"People will realize that if they think they need mental health treatment, they can just get it," he said. "From the standpoint of leadership, this is a critical part of leadership. Taking care of your people is part of leadership. And mental health is part of taking care of people. So if you're a leader, this is not just a medical issue. This is a leadership issue and a leader needs to take ownership."  

Also, a sign of success under the Brandon Act will be better mental health outcomes, he said.  

"From the mental health standpoint, people will be dealing with their issues, they will be fully functional, they will be ready," he said. "And then as a byproduct of that, there'll be fewer suicides. That's what we're aiming for."  

The Brandon Act is named after Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandon Caserta who died by suicide in 2018. Caserta's inability to get the mental health care he needed was a big motivating factor in the passing of the Brandon Act legislation.  

"He asked for help and the help was not forthcoming," Martinez-Lopez said.  

Caserta's parents, Martinez-Lopez said, wanted to ensure that their son's death was not for nothing. They embarked on an effort to ensure better access to mental health care in the armed forces, which they hoped would mean fewer suicides. Their efforts spurred creation of the Brandon Act, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden on December 27, 2021, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022.  

"They could have easily grieved their son's death, but done nothing," Martinez-Lopez said. "They're really champions and I applaud them for their grit. It's not easy to navigate the waters in Washington, D.C., and keep pushing for an agenda like this. They're passionate people."

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