What Happens When Our Moral Compass Is Shattered?

When moral injury hits, it hits hard and can have a long lasting emotional and psychological impact.

What Is Moral Injury?

Moral injury is a disruption in an individual’s confidence and expectations about his/her own moral behaviour or others’ capacity to behave in a just or ethical manner. It “results from having to make difficult moral choices under extreme conditions, experiencing morally anguishing events or duties, witnessing immoral acts, or behaving in ways that profoundly challenge moral conscience and identity and the values that support them.

Moral injury is found in feelings of survivor guilt, grief, shame, remorse, anger, despair, mistrust, and betrayal by authorities. In its most severe forms, it can destroy moral identity and the will to live. The possibility for moral injury is not limited to those in active combat but can include any position where life and death decisions are made.

In military communities where it was first identified as ‘moral injury’ and was defined by Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay as the psychological, social and physiological results of a betrayal of “what’s right”.

Moral injury is a loss injury; a disruption in our trust that occurs within our moral values and beliefs. Any events, action or inaction transgressing our moral/ethical beliefs, expectations and standards can set the stage for moral injury.

Some examples leading to moral injury include:

· Unintentional errors leading to injury or death

· Witnessing and/or failing to prevent harm or death

· Transgression of peers, leaders or organizations that betrayed our moral/ethical beliefs or expectations

The injury is caused by the betrayal, but it’s in the beliefs and our response to them that it actually resides.

When we suffer a moral injury, our beliefs about ourselves, our world, or both are shattered in the wake of what we’ve witnessed or done.

Our moral beliefs are one of the ways we see the world and one of the ways we conceptualise ourselves. Everything flips when people no longer adhere to a ‘code’, good people are forced to do bad things for good reasons, or our different identities contradict one another.

Moral Injury - Raises OH&S Issues

Organisations should start paying attention to this risk for three reasons:

1. To take preventative steps to ensure their workers are not hurt with a moral injury (basically, as an OH&S issue).

2. Learn how to identify and manage moral injuries if they do occur.

3. To identify what support is required should it be determined moral injuries are an ‘occupational hazard’.

The OH&S analogy is very relevant in view of for example, the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry. Employees exposed to acute trauma as a result of misconduct are likely to have their own world views of honesty and ethical behaviour challenged. A sense of betrayal could be argued. We are yet to hear the result of the numbers of employees made ill as a consequence of the misconduct in this sector.

However as a movement begins to stir in the corporate world casting a much wider view on ethical and honest behaviour, moral safety of employees will become an issue discussed at leadership of many of these organisations. Keeping people safe morally will add another layer to a very complex reset, reform and cultural agenda.

Duty Of Care

Today, we expect organisations to think about their duty of care in a broad sense – taking an active interest in their employees’ wellbeing, seeking to reduce the risk of physical injuries, managing and minimising psychological stressors and mental illness, and providing support when physical or mental stressors are likely to have a negative effect on employee wellbeing.

So, naturally it follows that if some ethical issues can have an effect on wellbeing, they should be treated seriously by organisations claiming to care about their people.

Why Haven’t We Heard About Moral Injury Before?

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTS or PTSD) became household terms over the last decade thanks to the maturation of attitudes about the costs of war; moral injury is now the object of growing focus by researchers and academics in the same manner.

Moral injury does not, by its nature, present itself immediately. Some will experience questions of moral injury days after an incident; for many others, difficulties will not surface for years. An experience with potential for moral injury is typically realized after a change in personal moral codes or belief systems.

What Are The Consequences Of Moral Injury

Moral injury can lead to serious distress, depression, and suicidality. Moral injury can take the life of those suffering from it, both metaphorically and literally. Moral injury debilitates people, preventing them from living full and healthy lives.

The effects of moral injury go beyond the individual and can destroy one’s capacity to trust others, impinging on the family system and the larger community. Moral injury must be brought forward into the community for a shared process of healing.

In the context of a soul, with respect to the diversity of beliefs and spiritual perspectives held by those involved with moral injury, consider this:

Moral injury is damage done to the soul of the individual. War is one (but not the only) thing that can cause this damage. Abuse, rape, and violence may cause similar types of damage. “Soul repair” and “soul wound” are terms already in use by researchers and institutions in the United States who are exploring moral injury and pathways to recovery.

What Should We Do About Moral Injury?

Moral injury must be acknowledged in the same way that we acknowledge the physical and mental costs of traumas experienced in war and other place of danger. Moral injury is subjective and personal. Research on moral injury is younger than research on PTSD – the definitions, ideas, and practices that are being evaluated are both experimental and varied.

Trauma of a type and severity that cause PTSD are likely to cause moral injury, too. This does not mean treating PTSD will “treat” moral injury, nor vice versa. The current tenets for “treatment” of moral injury must be defined by the individual according to their beliefs and needs. Outlets for acknowledging and confronting moral injury include talk therapy, religious dialogue, art, writing, discussion & talking circles, spiritual gatherings, and more.

Therapists, counsellors, social workers, and clergy are often at the front lines of addressing moral injury; however, the larger community can also take part. Consider that moral injury affects, and is affected by the moral codes across a community. In the case of military veterans, moral injury stems in part from feelings of isolation from civilian society. Moral injury, then, is a burden carried by very few, until the “outsiders” become aware of, and interested in sharing it. Listening and witnessing to moral injury outside the confines of a clinical setting can be a way to break the silence that so often surrounds moral injury.

What is Happening At Present About Moral Injury

1. A core group of healthcare professionals and spiritual care practitioners are beginning to foster public dialogue about moral injury.

2. Opportunities are being developed for veterans to design and participate in programs that explore moral injury.

3. Academics are researching and educating on moral injury.


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