Scholarship honors son, hopes to improve military mental health

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Arizona State University (ASU) alumni Patrick Caserta and his wife Teri have devoted their life to keeping their son Brandon’s memory alive after he took his own life while he served in the U.S. Navy.

The Casertas say Brandon was a victim of harassment while in the military. The petty officer third class killed himself at the age of 21 on the flight line at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia. Now his parents are doing what they can in hopes that other families will not have to go through the same pain.

The Casertas have pioneered the Brandon Act which requires the military to provide a mental health evaluation when self-reported, but it has yet to be implemented nationwide. The primary goal of the Brandon Act is to eradicate suicide in active-duty service members by ensuring access to mental health evaluations.

On December 27, 2021, President Biden signed the Brandon Act into law, extending protection to service members from retaliation when they choose to seek mental health services. Earlier this year, Gilbert R. Cisneros Jr., Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, signed a policy to initiate implementation of the Brandon Act and improve the process for service members seeking mental health support.

The policy requires a mental health evaluation for service members who self-report a need and allows members to seek help outside the chain of command and for cases to be kept confidential. The measure also mandates that the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) provide annual training on how to recognize when members may need a mental health evaluation.

“This law is designed to protect service members who experience mental health emergencies by requiring – requiring – the Department of Defense to create a process and reduce the stigma … a process that also protects confidentiality,” said Senator Mark Kelly, who himself served as a combat pilot in the U.S. Navy. Kelly began championing the act after hearing Brandon’s story.

Suicide rates have reportedly been increasing among members of the military and veterans alike. An annual DOD report, released in September, showed rates for active duty service members alone went from 20.3 suicides per 100,000 members in 2015 to 28.7 in 2020, with increases across all branches. The higher rate is more clear when the data is compared with a national suicide rate of 13.5 in 2020.

Last year, 580 service members reportedly died by suicide. Military members who take their own lives are largely men younger than 30. The DOD report cites a number of risk factors, including relationship and financial problems, ineffective coping skills, access to lethal means of injury and reluctance to seek help.

The Casertas are also expanding their mission. They have started a scholarship at ASU in honor of their son. The Brandon Caserta Memorial Scholarship provides $500 per semester for College of Health Solutions students with a military interest in health, especially mental health.

For more information on the scholarship, visit their website.

Teri Caserta, Founder & CEO of Brandon Caserta Foundation; Patrick Caserta, CFO of Brandon Caserta Foundation

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