Morally Injurious Events and Psychological Distress Among Veterans: Examining the Mediating Role of Religious and Spiritual Struggles

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Abstract

Objective: Potentially morally injurious events (PMIEs)—violations (perpetrated or witnessed) of one’s deeply held beliefs or values—have been associated with several forms of psychological distress. The values violated by PMIEs are often influenced by one’s religion/spirituality (r/s). Struggles with one’s r/s beliefs and/or practices may also contribute to elevated psychological distress. To further develop a framework for understanding and treating the sequelae of PMIE exposure, we examined the role of r/s struggles in the relation between PMIE exposure and psychological distress. Method: A diverse sample of 155 veterans at a large Veterans Affairs medical center completed questionnaires assessing PMIE exposure, r/s struggles, and psychological distress. Results: Findings revealed greater PMIE exposure predicted elevated r/s struggles as well as elevated symptoms of anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Likewise, greater r/s struggles predicted elevated anxiety, PTSD, and depression symptoms. Regression analyses revealed r/s struggles fully mediated the relation between PMIE exposure and anxiety as well as PTSD, and a significant indirect effect of PMIE exposure on depression symptoms through r/s struggles was observed. Follow-up analyses revealed that no specific domain of r/s struggles accounted for the relation between PMIE exposure and psychological distress; rather, the overarching construct of r/s struggles accounted for this relation. Conclusion: These findings advance the evolving theoretical framework of moral injury, elucidating the salience of r/s struggles in the development of distress. Implications for moral injury intervention call for attention to potential dissonance between actions (witnessed or perpetrated) and r/s underpinnings of the individual’s moral framework.

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