Publications of Interest

Moral Injury and Vicarious Trauma

This month in our quarterly column, Publications of Interest, we are bringing you a selection of articles which explore the concept of moral injury, including within health professionals. As usual we have tried to find some articles that are Open Access, or are available to members through our Journal of Trauma & Dissociation. We hope you enjoy catching up on some professional reading.

Molendijk et al (2022) Contextual dimensions of moral injury: An interdisciplinary review. Military Psychology, 34:6, 742-753, DOI: 10.1080/08995605.2022.2035643


The concept of moral injury, referring to the psychological impact of having one’s moral expectations and beliefs violated, is gaining a firm place in research on military trauma. Yet, although moral injury has the recognized potential to extend the understanding of trauma beyond the individualizing and pathologizing focus of the clinical realm, most studies nevertheless focus on clinical assessment, diagnosis and treatment. This review aims to contribute to a better understanding of contextual dimensions of moral injury. To this end, it complements current theory on moral injury with a systematic review of literature relevant to contextual factors in moral injury. It draws together insights from psychology, philosophy, theology and social sciences into spiritual/existential, organizational, political and societal dimensions of moral injury. Thus an interdisciplinary theoretical foundation is created for context-sensitive research and interventions.

June ter Heide (2020) Empathy is key in the development of moral injury, European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 11:1, 1843261, DOI:10.1080/20008198.2020.1843261


Background: Moral injury is a relatively new field within psychotraumatology that focuses on understanding and treating psychosocial symptoms after exposure to potentially morally injurious events (PMIE’s). There are currently three models of the development of moral injury which centre around the influence of attributions, coping and exposure. While the capacity for empathy is known to underlie moral behaviour, current models for moral injury do not explicitly include empathy-related factors.
Objective: This paper aims to make a case for complementing current models of the development of moral injury with the perception-action model of empathy (PAM).
Method: In this paper, the perception-action mechanism of empathy and the empathic behaviour that it may initiate, are described. The PAM states that perception of another person’s emotional state activates the observer’s own representations of that state. This forms the basis for empathic behaviour, such as helping, by which an observer tries to alleviate both another person’s and their own, empathic, distress. In this paper it is proposed that in PMIE’s, empathic or moral behaviour is expected but not, or not successfully, performed, and consequently distress is not alleviated. Factors known to influence the empathic response, including attention, emotion-regulation, familiarity and similarity, are hypothesized to also influence the development of moral injury.
Results: Two cases are discussed which illustrate how factors involved in the PAM may help explain the development of moral injury.
Conclusions: As empathy forms the basis for moral behaviour, empathy-related factors are likely to influence the development of moral injury. Research will have to show whether this hypothesis holds true in actual practice.

Cartolovni et al (2021) Moral injury in healthcare professionals: A scoping review and discussion. Nursing Ethics, 28(5) 590–602.

Moral injury emerged in the healthcare discussion quite recently because of the difficulties and challenges healthcare workers and healthcare systems face in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Moral injury involves a deep emotional wound and is unique to those who bear witness to intense human suffering and cruelty. This article aims to synthesise the very limited evidence from empirical studies on moral injury and to discuss a better understanding of the concept of moral injury, its importance in the healthcare context and its relation to the well-known concept of moral distress. A scoping literature review design was used to support the discussion. Systematic literature searches conducted in April 2020 in two electronic databases, PubMed/Medline and PsychInfo, produced 2044 hits but only a handful of empirical papers, from which seven well-focused articles were identified. The concept of moral injury was considered under other concepts as well such as stress of conscience, regrets for ethical situation, moral distress and ethical suffering, guilt without fault, and existential suffering with inflicting pain. Nurses had witnessed these difficult ethical situations when faced with unnecessary patient suffering and a feeling of not doing enough. Some cases of moral distress may turn into moral residue and end in moral injury with time, and in certain circumstances and contexts. The association between these concepts needs further investigation and confirmation through empirical studies; in particular, where to draw the line as to when moral distress turns into moral injury, leading to severe consequences. Given the very limited research on moral injury, discussion of moral injury in the context of the duty to care, for example, in this pandemic settings and similar situations warrants some consideration.

Mantri, S., Lawson, J. M., Wang, Z., & Koenig, H. G. (2020). Identifying Moral Injury in Healthcare Professionals: The Moral Injury Symptom Scale-HP. Journal of religion and health, 59(5), 2323–2340.


This study aims to develop and assess the psychometric properties of a measure of moral injury (MI) symptoms for identifying clinically significant MI in health professionals (HPs), one that might be useful in the current COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. A total of 181 HPs (71% physicians) were recruited from Duke University Health Systems in Durham, North Carolina. Internal reliability of the Moral Injury Symptom Scale-Healthcare Professionals version (MISS-HP) was examined, along with factor analytic, discriminant, and convergent validity. A cutoff score was identified from a receiver operator curve (ROC) that best identified individuals with significant impairment in social or occupational functioning. The 10-item MISS-HP measures 10 theoretically grounded dimensions of MI assessing betrayal, guilt, shame, moral concerns, religious struggle, loss of religious/spiritual faith, loss of meaning/purpose, difficulty forgiving, loss of trust, and self-condemnation (score range 10-100). Internal reliability of the MISS-HP was 0.75. PCA identified three factors, which was confirmed by CFA, explaining 56.8% of the variance. Discriminant validity was demonstrated by modest correlations (r’s = 0.25-0.37) with low religiosity, depression, and anxiety symptoms, whereas convergent validity was evident by strong correlations with clinician burnout (r = 0.57) and with another multi-item measure of MI symptoms (r = 0.65). ROC characteristics indicated that a score of 36 or higher was 84% sensitive and 93% specific for identifying MI symptoms causing moderate to extreme problems with family, social, and occupational functioning. The MISS-HP is a reliable and valid measure of moral injury symptoms in health professionals that can be used in clinical practice to screen for MI and monitor response to treatment, as well as when conducting research that evaluates interventions to treat MI in HPs.

Myriam Denov (2022) Encountering children and child soldiers during military deployments: the impact and implications for moral injury, European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 13:2, 2104007, DOI: 10.1080/20008066.2022.2104007


Background: During a deployment, soldiers must make seemingly impossible decisions, including having to engage with child soldiers. Such moral conflicts may continue to affect service members and veterans in the aftermath of a deployment, sometimes leading to severe moral distress, anguish, and personal crises. Service providers have increasingly argued that as a diagnosis, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) cannot account for these deeply personal and painful moral conflicts. In light of this, the concept of moral injury has been introduced to better capture the profound forms of guilt and shame that may be experienced by service members and veterans.
Objective: This paper addresses encounters with children and child soldiers during military deployments, as well as the risk for moral injury during and following these encounters, and their implications. This exploratory paper brings together existing literature on the topic to introduce, illustrate, and offer potential and promising interventions.
Results: Given the potential moral conflicts that may ensue, military personnel who encounter child soldiers during a military deployment may be at risk for moral injury during and following these encounters. The introduction of the concept of moral injury provides a way for these largely unnamed personal and painful moral conflicts and violations to be recognized, addressed, and with appropriate care, remedied. Although there is limited research into their effectiveness at treating moral injury, individual and group-based interventions have been identified as potentially beneficial.
Conclusion: As encounters with children during deployments are likely to continue, systematic research, training, healing interventions and prevention strategies are vital to support and protect children in conflict settings, as well as to ensure the mental health and well-being of service members and veterans.

Fani et al (2021) Moral injury in civilians: associations with trauma exposure, PTSD, and suicide behavior, European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 12:1, 1965464, DOI: 10.1080/20008198.2021.1965464


Background: Moral injury (MI) describes emotional, spiritual, and social suffering that can arise following psychological trauma. Prior research in military populations indicates the relevance of MI to adverse psychological outcomes, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicidal behaviours, and shows evidence for MI as a unique construct. Minimal studies of MI have been implemented in civilians, usually restricted to small samples with a specific set of traumatic experiences, despite the conceptual relevance of MI to non-military trauma reactions more broadly (e.g. feelings of betrayal towards a perpetrator of sexual abuse).
Objective: To address this problem, we assessed MI in trauma-exposed civilians to examine ways in which this construct was related to and distinct from trauma and traumatic stress related problems, including PTSD and depression.
Method: We adapted an existing MI scale, Moral Injury Events Scale (MIES) and administered this measure to 81 men and women along with measures of trauma exposure, PTSD and depression, and also asked participants about past suicide attempts.
Results: We observed that both greater exposure and distress related to potentially morally injurious events were associated with higher trauma exposure, particularly childhood maltreatment, as well as post-traumatic and depressive psychopathology. However, even after accounting for current PTSD and depression symptoms, MI exposure (F = 6.05, p = .017) was significantly higher among participants who had previously attempted suicide.
Conclusions: These pilot data reveal the ways in which MI is associated with trauma exposure, PTSD and depression and highlight the salience of MI in civilians. Similarly, these data demonstrate the unique relevance of MI to suicide behaviours, independent of post-traumatic psychopathology