What is Moral Injury?
Moral injury is the suffering people experience when we are in high stakes situations, things go wrong, and harm results that challenges our deepest moral codes and ability to trust in others or ourselves. The harm may be something we did, something we witnessed, or something that was done to us. It results in moral emotions such as shame, guilt, self-condemnation, outrage, and sorrow.
In essence it is a wound to the conscience. It is soul anguish, a broken spirit, a shredded soul. A violation of one’s moral compass.
Anyone who works with marginalized, at-risk populations has probably seen that empty stare that can be moral injury. People in poverty. People struggling with addiction. Veterans or first responders who experience traumatic and life-threatening situations. Health care professionals facing life-altering decisions. People whose choices erode their feeling of being a good and decent person, worthy of respect. People who carry unprocessed grief and guilt in ordinary life. Because of things we do, witness, are ordered to do, or fail to do in high stakes situations, we can lose our moral foundations and our sense of being a good person.
In war, it’s often the job of military personnel to do those things that violate everything they were ever taught is wrong. However, moral injury can also afflict anyone when no good choice is possible in situations and people must use the power they have to act, knowing they will cause harm, or violate their own core moral values. In those situations we actually don’t lose our moral conscience, but in judging ourselves, we become both betrayer and betrayed. A soul divided against itself.
Moral injury is a broken spirit – not a disorder or a psychiatric condition, though it profoundly effects our mental health. Moral injury is the feeling that one is no longer possible to be good anymore. It is the loss of the capacity for trust and empathy, of a sense of meaning, and even of faith in God.
Hope for Recovery
VOA is at the national forefront of offering support and resources to help people recover from moral injury. Through peer-to-peer facilitated dialogue, trainings, webinars, and the Resilience Strength Training for military veterans, VOA is leading the way to offer answers and support to others. If you have questions about how we can help others or communities impacted by moral injury, please, reach out to VOA Northern New England’s Lead Chaplain, Al Boyce at firstname.lastname@example.org.