From The New York Times By Jane E. Brody: Moral injury resembles post-traumatic stress disorder with an added burden of guilt, and requires different treatment.
No doubt in the course of your life, you did something, or failed to do something, that left you feeling guilty or ashamed. What if that something was in such violation of your moral compass that you felt unable to forgive yourself, undeserving of happiness, perhaps even unfit to live?
That is the fate of an untold number of servicemen and women who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam and other wars. Many participated in, witnessed or were unable to help in the face of atrocities, from failing to aid an injured person to killing a child, by accident or in self-defense.
For some veterans, this leaves emotional wounds that time refuses to heal. It radically changes them and how they deal with the world. It has a name: moral injury. Unlike a better known casualty of war, post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, moral injury is not yet a recognized psychiatric diagnosis, although the harm it inflicts is as bad if not worse.
The problem is highlighted in a new documentary called “Almost Sunrise,” which will be shown next weekend at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York and on June 23 and 24 at AFI Docs in Washington, D.C. The film depicts the emotional agony and self-destructive aftermath of moral injury and follows two sufferers along a path that alleviates their psychic distress and offers hope for eventual recovery.
Therapists both within and outside the Department of Veterans Affairs increasingly recognize moral injury as the reason so many returning vets are self-destructive and are not helped, or only partly helped, by established treatments for PTSD.
Moral injury has some of the symptoms of PTSD, especially anger, depression, anxiety, nightmares, insomnia and self-medication with drugs or alcohol. And it may benefit from some of the same treatments. But moral injury has an added burden of guilt, grief, shame, regret, sorrow and alienation that requires a very different approach to reach the core of a sufferer’s psyche.
Unlike the soldiers who were drafted to serve in Vietnam, the members of the armed forces today chose to enlist. Those deployed to Iraq thought at first they were fighting to bring democracy to the country, then were told later it was to win hearts and minds. But to many of those in battle, the real effect was “to terrorize people,” as one veteran says in the film. Another said, “That’s not what we signed up for.”
That war can be morally compromising is not a new idea and has been true in every war. But the therapeutic community is only now becoming aware of the dimensions of moral injury and how it can be treated.
Father Thomas Keating, a founding member of Contemplative Outreach, says in the film, “Antidepressants don’t reach the depth of what these men are feeling,” that they did something terribly wrong and don’t know if they can be forgiven.
Read more: War Wounds That Time Alone Can’t Heal