White House and KDADS address national concern for mental health of service members

Banner in Junction City of Brandon Caserta, sponsored by Tara Fields, a veteran of the Kansas National Guard involved in bringing awareness to mental health concerns of service members.

This past year, suicide statistics rose 15% among service members in the United States, according to the Pentagon, creating national concern. On Nov. 2, the White House announced a strategy to reduce military and veteran suicide.

The plan involves improving gun safety, enhancing crisis care and facilitating care transitions, increasing access to and delivery of effective care, addressing upstream risk and protective factors and increasing research coordination, data sharing and evaluation efforts.

According to statistics released by the Pentagon last month, more than 30,000 active-duty personnel and veterans of wars that followed the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks have died by suicide.

Cara Sloan-Ramos, Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services public information officer, said the pandemic may be partly to blame for the higher suicide rates of veterans over the past year, as the virus led to more unemployment and homelessness among veterans.

“Isolation has prevented veterans from being with Battle Buddies, and early lock downs many have led to more unemployment,” she said. “Veterans who are homeless are much more likely to attempt suicide.”

This year is not the first year statistics on service member suicides have increased. The White House reported that for more than a decade, suicide rates have been higher and risen faster among veterans than those who are not. Veterans ages 18 to 35 have a suicide rate “almost three times higher than non-veterans the same age,” according to the report by the White House, and women veterans die by suicide at almost twice the rate as non-veteran women.

With service members at higher risk than others for mental health concerns, the White House noted the return of thousands of troops from Afghanistan could increase the numbers.

Brandon Caserta, a Navy E-4 who died in 2018 at just 21 years old, is just one name out of the many military members and veterans who have died by suicide, and his parents are speaking out on behalf of people like him to help prevent more deaths going forward.

Patrick Caserta, Brandon Caserta’s father, told The Junction City Union the statistics involving service member suicides are actually vastly under-reported. He said the subject is also under-reported in the media, and people don’t speak about it enough because it is such a touchy subject.

“Everybody’s ignoring this, and the numbers keep going up,” he said. “What they don’t understand is that this could happen to them. … We need to do something to stop this.”

Patrick Caserta said one reason for the number of military suicides is the toxic behavior of commanding officers. A Navy veteran himself, Patrick Caserta said systematic problems in the military count as the main reason for many incidences of suicide, including that of his son, though he said it is difficult to find accurate statistics on the matter.

This reason is why Patrick and his wife Teri Caserta, of Peroia, Arizona, created the Brandon Act, a bill that “modifies the regulatory requirement for the referral of a member of the Armed Forces for a mental health evaluation.” Under the bill, commanding officers or supervisors must make referrals as soon as practicable and the referral process would protect the confidentiality of the member. The bill was introduced to the House of Representatives in June 2020.

“The Brandon Act forces bad commands to be honest, because they are not going to be able to act like they did before,” he said. “It is accountability so we can look out for these people.”

Sloan-Ramos said military members combat a stigma when it comes to mental health, which often prevents them from reaching out when they are dealing with mental health issue.

“Most veterans carry a deep stigma in that for so long they worried about not being ‘battle ready’ if they admitted to having mental illness or thoughts of suicide,” she said. “They also worry about losing the right to own a gun once they are out of the military if they admit to having mental illness.”

Patrick Caserta said military members learn to act tough no matter what is going on because of the stigma surrounding mental health concerns.

“In a good command, more than likely you would tell them what’s going on because they are going to help you,” he said. “It’s because of bad commands that you need that confidentiality.”

Sloan-Ramos said military and veterans’ access to and comfortability with firearms plays a role in the statistics as well. She said organizations in the state are working to educate people on limiting access to lethal means.

Some of the ways family members can make a difference, she said, is by offering to keep a veteran’s firearm while they are struggling, helping connect veterans with each other and learning Mental Health First Aid to gain awareness of the signs.

Signs that someone is high risk include talking about how they are a burden to others, giving away items and having a plan in place to complete suicide.

“Help them self-recognize when they are escalating and have a plan when they are escalating,” she said. “Ask your loved ones if they have thoughts of suicide and connect them with resources.”

Sloan-Ramos suggested communities help by making veterans feel more welcome and providing activities for them to connect with other veterans, especially in environments that don’t serve alcohol.

Patrick Caserta said family members should keep their ears open and be aware of what is going on in their military family members’ lives. Many signs can inform on how someone is doing while they are serving.

“You need to help them as soon as there is any sign of any kind of struggle or any kind of oppression,” he said. “If they text you every day and they stop, you need to do something. If they email you every day, whatever it is, and it stops mysteriously or they start losing a bunch of weight. Whatever those signs are, you need to be on the lookout. If there is anything going on, you need to go there and help them.”

Military members and veterans should reach out to a trusted friend or family member, a battle buddy, their doctor, minister or a mental health agency if they are experiencing mental health concerns. Those in crisis should go to crisis centers at local mental health agencies or call 911. Veterans in crisis can call the Veterans Crisis Line.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255) is a 24-hour toll-free phone line for people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. An online chat option is also available.

The VA has many resources available for veterans and military members experiencing mental illness, Sloan-Ramos said, and the LiveConnectedKS.org website and Facebook page have resources available. Sloan-Ramos mentioned that local Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics have military cultural competency as part of their requirements, so the clinics are more aware of working with veterans and military. Local Veteran Service Organizations are also good resources.

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