Moral Injury: What exactly is it?

Published on January 09, 2023

Moral injury has been defined as, “In traumatic or unusually stressful circumstances, people may perpetrate, fail to prevent, or witness events that contradict deeply held moral beliefs and expectations” (United States Department of Veteran Affairs). 

Essentially, moral injury can occur when someone either engages in or witnesses an event and/or action that goes against their own personal values, ethics, and beliefs. There are two types of acts that can lead to moral injury; acts of commission and acts of omission. Acts of commission refer to actions people take that go against their own morals and/or belief systems. While acts of omission highlight when someone intentionally does not take action on something that leads to an adverse event that goes against their own morals and ethics. 

To clarify, an example of an act of commission may be that a military member kills civilians in the midst of performing combat related duties. An act of omission might be a physician not taking someone off of life support despite patient suffering due to the patient's family making the decision to keep the patient on life support. 

So why are we talking about this?

Well, oftentimes we tend to associate the term “moral injury” with military personnel and military related tasks/traumas. However, moral injury extends to multiple life experiences in addition to the military experience. For example, those who are in the healthcare and/or mental health care field, first responders, survivors of crime, and survivors of intimate partner violence may also deal with the negative thoughts, feelings, and even potential decrease in functioning related to traumas associated with moral injury.  

What types of situations can lead to moral injury?

While we can take an educated guess that engaging in and/or bearing witness to a violent war event is traumatic and will create moral injury in most of us, there are other scenarios in the civilian world that can also inflict moral injury.

For example, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare workers across the world were stretched incredibly thin; working longer hours, having to isolate from their families for extended periods, seeing a high volume of patients, and not always being able to help dying patients see their loved ones one last time before they left this world. The unimaginable stress of working in healthcare at the height of the pandemic led to unavoidable moral injury on various fronts, given there was so much out of our control and so many difficult decisions had to be made. There are even people who blame themselves for others' deaths after unintentionally and/or unknowingly exposing people to the disease, healthcare workers or not.

Then, there are those who are survivors of violent and/or sexual crimes that often suffer with depression, anxiety, social isolation, grief, and resentment towards themselves, others, and the world based on their own traumatic experiences and moral injuries sustained. They might blame themselves for what happened to them, whether that be rape, sex trafficking, or assault. They may know their assailant and still have love and/or affection for them, which creates an internal storm of emotions and confusion.

People who suffer with moral injury often deal with bouts of depression, shame, anger, disgust, distrust, and self loathing. Such feelings can compound with clinical depression, anxiety, or even post traumatic stress disorder that makes moving forward in our lives that much harder. Maybe we notice ourselves to “shut ourselves off” to others, the world, and ourselves…we just can’t trust anything or anyone anymore which creates negative bias that impacts how we live our lives. We feel more isolated because we feel shameful or disgusted by what happened, so we disengage which ultimately fuels the anxiety, anger, sadness, poor sleep, helplessness, and hopelessness that may come with moral injury. 

So, what do we do to heal?

Much like any emotional wound, it is important to be able to have the felt safety to talk about our moral injury without being judged. Simple, right? No! Dealing with the dissonance that comes with moral injury is hard enough for the sufferer, but it is discouraging when we think about telling a trusted loved one with fear of being met with “well, why didn’t you just do this?” or “Oh, I would have handled that way differently” or “You could’ve just said no”. Sometimes we may be met with such responses; or, sometimes we may have unconditional love and nonjudgmental support. But we can’t know until we put ourselves out there as a first step in healing. Again, I acknowledge that this is far from easy.

Research also points to forgiveness and self compassion as means of coping and healing from moral injury. How is that done? Well, therapists can help you talk about the event(s) leading to your moral injury followed by discussion of negative beliefs you hold about yourself, others, and/or the world as a result. From there, your therapist can help you find ways to accept the reality of the occurrence and forgive yourself to release the hold of self hatred and condemnation. Your therapist can teach skills to reinforce self compassion, such as learning self empathy and acceptance to lift the burden as well. This work is nowhere near easy, but with time and dedication, the wounds of moral injury can be healed so that you can live your life again.

- Jackie Martinez, LMSW (NY), LCSW (NC)

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