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How the Navy is trying to help Sailors’ mental health after recent string of suicides

While Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday has called suicide "a vexing problem," the year-to-year numbers are down overall.

NORFOLK, Va. — Following a concerning string of suicides in Hampton Roads, the Navy is taking action. 

The service recently issued a Mental Health Playbook to facilitate mental health conversations between commanders and their sailors. That’s just one of several important steps the department is taking.

While Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday has called suicide "a vexing problem," the year-to-year numbers are down overall.

The most recent Defense Department statistics show that overall, the number of sailors who died by suicide dropped between 2020 and 2021, from 65 to 58. But in Hampton Roads, there were nine suspected cases in less than one year's time.

"To lose a shipmate to suicide is one of the most devastating and horrible things that can ever happen. So, we take it extremely seriously," said Adm. Daryl Caudle, the commander of the U.S. Fleet Force Command.

"I wonder why they took their own lives. And sometimes, that is a question that's never an answerable question," said Cmdr. Matthew Prince, Deputy Chaplain, Surface Forces Atlantic.

One thing the Navy is doing is working to make chaplains regular members of the crew on ships.

READ MORE | US Navy deploys more chaplains for suicide prevention

The goal is for clergy to connect with sailors, believers and non-believers alike, in complete confidentiality, something that has allowed several chaplains to talk sailors out of suicidal crises.

"Not only can we play an important role, we do play an important role," said Cpt. David Thames, Chaplain, Surface Forces Atlantic. "By 2025, every one of our ships or destroyers and ultimately frigates-size or larger will have an assigned chaplain that's part of ship's company. They become absolutely trusted agents in the eyes of the crew by virtue of being there, day in and day out with those folks."

At Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, 400 mental health counselors and staffers work around the clock on this problem.

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"Every single life that can be directed away from suicide, that's a win," said Lt. Cmdr. Michael Connor, a clinical psychologist.

He described what it's like to take call from a suicidal sailor.

"First step, can we get away from the crisis? Can we get to a point of stability?" Connor said. "Then we want to work a little deeper to get through to what some of the roots of the problems are. Because, you can patch it up. We want to work on some of the longer term fixes if we can."

One thing that could have helped would have been if the Brandon Act had been fully implemented sooner.

Signed into law by President Joe Biden on Dec. 27, 2021, the act improves the referral process for service members seeking a mental health evaluation and allowing them to seek help confidentially. 

READ MORE | Department of Defense implements the Brandon Act

It was named after Brandon Caserta, who died by suicide while serving in the Navy in 2018. In April, the parents of the late sailor expressed frustration over how long the process was taking.

"We are more disappointed because it should not be this hard to save lives," Teri Casserta, Brandon's mother, said.

Teri and her husband Patrick were asked if the nine sailors would be alive, if the Brandon Act had been enacted sooner.

Patrick said: "Yes, we believe so."

Finally on May 5, more than 16 months after Biden signed the bill, Undersecretary of Defense Gilbert Cisneros signed a policy to initiate implementation of phase one the Brandon Act within 45 days.

He said: "Our greatest strength is our people, and we are committed to their well-being."

The national suicide and crisis lifeline is available by calling or texting 988. There is also an online chat at 988lifeline.org

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