This year many active duty military, reservists and veterans are facing a unique form of emotional distress not seen on such a wide scale since WWII.
Moral injury, unlike it’s more well-known cousin, post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a term described as the “psychic fallout of morally injurious events, such as perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress [one’s own] deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.”
The heartbreaking and infuriating death of George Floyd and the national fallout that came next has affected everyone. The ongoing conflicts between the justifiably angry protesters and police and National Guard obligated to serve and protect has a deep emotional impact on anyone watching the conflict play out.
However, that impact is often amplified in the hearts and minds of the law enforcement and military officers. Many of them agree with the ideas the protesters are standing up for and many are feeling betrayed by the organizations and institutions they serve. This long-standing feeling of betrayal is at the heart of the protest movement.
Additionally, situations like being asked to hold the line or disperse protestors that include friends, family and neighbors can create a crisis of conscience for those affected. Interestingly enough, tear gas has long been banned in war, yet is still being classified as a “riot control agent” that can legally be used on citizens administered by citizens.
As a U.S. Army veteran, a military sexual trauma survivor and a licensed mental health counselor, I have spent the last decade working with veterans and service members grappling with traumatic stress. It has become apparent that a majority of individuals are not able to cope and move on from their traumas because too often in mental health we address the symptoms and not the root of the problem. Today, these moral injuries — these violations of a soldier or police officer’s core values — is the underlying issues that we need to address.
Moral injury can come from acts such as killing or wounding others, engaging in disproportionate acts of violence or retributions, or failing to save the life of someone presumed innocent such as a child, friend or civilian.
It’s important to understand that PTSD and moral injury elicit two different responses. PTSD sufferers tend to want to avoid feeling fear by avoiding overstimulation that could trigger the fight or flight mechanism in the brain. Moral injury sufferers, on the other hand, tend to want to avoid feeling shame or humiliation, by avoiding situations that elicit the feeling of “I am wrong” or “Wrong was done to me and I could do nothing to stop it.” This idea is key as we seek to find answers for how to heal during this tenuous time in our country. It is this avoidance of shame triggers that leads to the difficulty many are facing as they are being called up to serve in roles that they feel they never signed up to take on in the first place.
Most individuals cannot resolve these violations on their own and it’s important to let people know that it is not a sign of weakness to get help. It’s time we encourage all our law enforcement personnel to talk to their military or police support teams about moral injury so we can stop just treating symptoms.
As we seek to understand burnout, compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma, we need to be asking the real questions about our individual core values and the experiences that are violating those values. These are happening on a regular basis for a broader spectrum of our population than at any time in recent memory.
What can you do to navigate the troubled waters of moral injury?
Define your core values: What values matter to you? Name them, label them and define them for yourself.
Once you’ve defined your values, think about what you are doing to uphold these values for yourself.
Are you connected to mental health professionals with whom you can openly discuss these topics? Sometimes therapy does not “work” because we are treating the symptoms and not the cause.
Build a support system of individuals and professionals you can reach out to in times of crisis.
Brooksi Bottari is a U.S. Army veteran who currently serves as director of veteran initiatives at Melwood Veteran Services.