Moral Injury: The Scars You Don't See

Christine Gallagher Kearney
December 17, 2014

According to the Veterans Administration, many veterans with mental health problems do not seek help for various reasons, including privacy concerns, fear of being seen as weak and problems with access, such as cost or location of treatment.

Undoubtedly the most well-known mental illness that has an impact on veterans is post-traumatic stress disorder, more commonly known as PTSD. A lesser known injury that leaves scars you cannot see is called 'moral injury,' and DePaul's Multi-Faith Veteran Support Initiative lead by the Egan Office for Urban Education and Community Partnerships at the Steans Center is hoping to help veterans in the Chicago area, particularly those who are seeking help through their faith communities.

"Moral injury is a negative self-judgment based on having transgressed core moral beliefs and values or on feeling betrayed by authorities. It is reflected in the destruction of a moral identity and loss of meaning. Its symptoms include: shame, survivor guilt, depression, despair, addiction, distrust, anger, a need to make amends and the loss of a desire to live," says Rita Brock, co-director of The Soul Repair Center and internationally recognized expert on the emerging study of moral injury and recovery.

The initiative at DePaul grew out of a faculty member's painful personal experience of losing a son to suicide after he struggled with PTSD upon returning from a tour in Iraq. Around the same time, a McCormick Foundation program officer, who also is a veteran, was examining mental health issues facing veterans.

The foundation contacted the Egan Office and asked: How do we engage faith based institutions and mental health institutions to examine moral injury?

 "We got a planning grant from McCormick that allowed us to bring leaders of all faiths to the table to have a broader conversation about the meaning of moral injury and how it's affecting what is being done in our communities," says John Zeigler, project director of the Egan office.

On Oct. 15, the McCormick Foundation extended the grant with a 15-month pilot program that includes a community engagement curriculum to address pastoral care development and a 'train the trainer' course for faith leaders.

"There is an attention to developing a process of engagement in these communities," Zeigler says. A key outcome of the pilot program is to uncover how faith leaders are connecting to the community of veterans beyond their church, synagogue or mosque doors.

Troy Harden, research associate for the Egan Office, and Anton Seals, neighborhood and community coordinator for the Egan office, oversee the program implementation across four geographical areas in Chicago.

"We're developing a process outside of their congregations to define community beyond faith institutions' walls," Seals says. "We're really pushing the boundaries of what assets are in communities and not necessarily just physical assets."

The training will provide faith leaders with framework and a language to use when engaging with veterans about moral injury. As many people involved in supporting veterans have discovered, often veterans only talk to other veterans about their war-time experiences.

In addition to serving veterans, the pilot program serves as a way to bring multi-faith institutions and mental health organizations and other concerned community groups together. "We've seen people who are thirsty to see what other people are doing around community building," Zeigler says. "There's been a groundswell of people sharing and networking with each other."

The Egan Office staff will continue to tap into the legacy of Monsignor Egan by finding and engaging experts---chiefly veterans suffering from moral injury---from the communities where the pilot program is being implemented. Program outcomes will be available beginning February 2015.