NAVAL STATION NORFOLK, Virginia. (AP) — On Navy ships docked at this vast base, hundreds of sailors in below-deck mazes of windowless passageways perform intense, often monotonous manual labor. It's necessary work before a ship deploys, but hard to adjust to for many already challenged by the stresses plaguing young adults nationwide.
Growing mental health distress in the ranks carries such grave implications that the U.S. chief of naval operations, Adm. Michael Gilday, answered “suicides” when asked earlier this year what in the security environment kept him up at night.
One recently embraced prevention strategy is to deploy chaplains as regular members of the crew on more ships. The goal is for the clergy to connect with sailors, believers and non-believers alike, in complete confidentiality – something that has allowed several to talk sailors out of suicidal crises.
“That makes us accessible as a relief valve,” said Capt. David Thames, an Episcopal priest who’s responsible for chaplains for the Navy’s surface fleet in the Atlantic, covering dozens of ships from the East Coast to Bahrain.
The families of two young men who killed themselves in Norfolk said chaplains could be effective as part of a larger effort to facilitate access to mental health care without stigma or retaliation. But they also insist on accountability and a chain of command committed to eliminating bullying and engaging younger generations.
“A chaplain could help, but it wouldn’t matter if you don’t empower them,” said Patrick Caserta, a former Navy recruiter. His son Brandon was 21 when he killed himself in 2018, after struggling with depression and being “told to suck it up and go back to work.”
—- EDITOR’S NOTE — This story includes discussion of suicide. The national suicide and crisis lifeline is available by calling or texting 988. There is also an online chat at 988lifeline.org
Mental health problems, especially among enlisted men under 29, mirror concerns in schools and colleges, which are also increasingly tapping campus ministry for counseling. The isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated depression and anxiety for many.
But chaplains, civilian counselors, families of suicide victims, and sailors from commodores to the newly enlisted say these struggles pose unique challenges and security implications in the military, where suicides have risen for most of the past decade and took the lives of 519 service members in 2021, per the latest Department of Defense data.
“Adjustment disorder” is the most common mental health diagnosis among sailors, Gilday said Wednesday at a budget hearing of the House Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee. He asked to invest in chaplains and others onboard who can help “separate life stress from mental illness” and get sailors “at the tactical edge” the right care.
“Mental health permeates every aspect of our operations,” Capt. Blair Guy, commodore for one of the destroyer squadrons based in Norfolk, said via email. "Enhancing spiritual readiness enhances operations, it is not an either or discussion.”
His squadron’s lead chaplain, Lt. Cmdr. Madison Carter, is working on recruiting others for the three ships still without permanent chaplains. In the next two years, leaders hope to have 47 chaplains on ships based in Norfolk, up from 37 today. Previously, chaplains — who are both naval officers and clergy from various denominations — were routinely deployed only on the largest aircraft carriers that have up to 5,000 personnel.
Carter, a Baptist pastor, said most of his talks with sailors involve not faith but life struggles that can make them feel unfulfilled and lose focus.
“How do I make sure that you have mind, body and soul all locked in?” is the question that drives his mission.