NAVAL STATION NORFOLK (WAVY) – Sailors and workers at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center told Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) during his visit Tuesday they need better access and more providers to help them get mental health appointments.

“We heard some concerns today about how long it takes to get an appointment at Portsmouth Naval Hospital,” said Kaine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

He toured MARMAC Tuesday afternoon, describing the unit of 3,200 people – half civilian, half sailors, who fix what isn’t working on ships in port – as “kind of like the MacGyvers of the Navy.”

About half the sailors are there for limited duty for physical, mental health or other reasons.

“Some of the folks have had experience working at other military communities and they’ve (not had to wait) that long to get into the naval hospital in Japan or in North Carolina at Camp Lejeune, so we’ve got to dig into that,” Kaine said.

So in some cases, they have gone to Kayla Fallon-Arestivo. A private civilian mental health counselor, she has treated members of MARMC, and said even if they can get into Portsmouth, they’re not getting the proper follow-up.

“When I spoke with a sailor about their experiences at Portsmouth Naval, they were receiving care, but their sessions were significantly cut in half,” said Fallon-Arestivo, who in December participated in a WAVY-TV 10 community chat on mental health in the military.

MARMC had four suicides in November, and all of them were members on limited duty.

MARMC has added resources, including a chaplain and two counselors embedded in the workforce who weren’t there before October 2022, although Fallon-Arestivo said they are not all present at the same time.

“I want to applaud that … the leadership at MARMC has admitted and addressed and openly seen that there is a need for extra assistance,” Fallon-Arestivo said. “I don’t know that that’s the end-all fix-all, because that still just three people for hundreds of people.”

Kaine pushed for the Brandon Act, signed into law 13 months ago. Named for a sailor who died by suicide on Naval Station Norfolk, it provides an easier path for service members to seek help, but it has yet to be implemented.

“Like with other things we’ve done – we do military housing improvements, they don’t immediately improve the stock of military housing,” Kaine said. “It’s about implementation. I’ve seen this movie before. We do something that’s good. Okay, now we’ve got to just stay on it.”

Kaine says he and his staff will make implementation of the Brandon Act a priority in 2023.

Fallon-Arestivo said all of the armed services need to work on narrowing the pay gap for mental health providers compared with the private sector. Otherwise, the current attrition rate will continue and the provider-to-patient ratio will only get worse.

Politics aside she said there has been little progress in getting the Brandon Act into place, noting that if the Navy wants a new ship or technology, it’ll happen without fail. It’s not the same with mental health resources.

“But this is really important and we’re not making any headway on it,” Fallon-Arestivo said. “We really need the Brandon Act. We do not have enough personnel, enough mental health care clinicians accessible across the board, through the entire Navy.”