Moral Injury

Lisa Duez talks about moral injury in law enforcement and the impact it can have on relationships.

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You finish a call, and it went well, but something’s not sitting right. You feel bad, kind of guilty, or maybe even a little shameful. You see your friend that was just involved in an officer involved shooting recently, and people are going by and letting them know that it was a good shot, you know, it was a good shot. He’s even been cleared. But you realize that in all the congratulations, he doesn’t seem to be as pleased with himself as everybody else is pleased with him. Maybe your spouse comes home after an incident and you think, thank goodness she’s alive, but she’s stuck thinking about what choices she should have made that you think would’ve put her at risk. All of these people may be struggling with a moral injury left unaddressed. Moral injuries can lead to struggles at work and at home. Today, Lisa Duez and I talk about the types of moral injuries, what to watch for in your department and at home, and how to address them.

What is Moral Injury in Law Enforcement?

Acts of commission or omission

Moral Injury is the psychological or behavioral trauma from an event or situation that is distressing to one’s moral values. It is sometimes thought of as a spiritual or soul wound because something you did or did not do goes against your person and the things you were taught your entire life. It may not be unethical or illegal but feels inherently wrong. An example a moral injury from omission is following protocol in an active shooter situation. Law enforcement officers are trained to bypass wounded at the scene until the priority, the active threat is eliminated. It can feel morally wrong as an officer to fight your instincts and not save those around you and instead follow operating procedures.

Moral Injury from commission can oftentimes happen after an officer involved shooting. There is sometimes the idea that officers feel they have no feelings after a shooting because they had a job to do and were acting upon suspect’s poor choices. However, a life was taken, and moral injury can result from the guilt of killing someone regardless of the reason why. There is no right or wrong.

Moral Injuries and Relationships

The impact of moral injuries can spillover into relationships at home. At times, when moral injuries occur, the person suffering can feel isolated and unlike themselves. There can be constant questioning of their decisions and obsessive thoughts surrounding the event. This mindset can cause unintended consequences in relationships and decrease communication and connection. There are several warning signs to be on the lookout for to combat the effects of moral injuries.

Signs and symptoms of moral injury

As a law enforcement community, we need to take care of each other when there are any signs of moral injury.  This can include hearing magical thinking types of phrases. “If I did this, then this wouldn’t have happened.” “If I had arrived five minutes earlier, I could have saved a life.” There can also be statements that can be said that reflect someone’s character “I am a horrible person because I did this” or “I am a failure.”

Another indication of moral injury is if the person shows complex guilt and complex grief.  This is where emotions that stem from moral injury are internalized in other parts of your world. If a moral injury is making you feel like you aren’t a good enough cop, the feeling of not being good enough can translate over into not being a good spouse or father. Eventually, your brain takes the injury and convinces you that you are good enough for anything.

Addressing Moral Injury

Don’t dismiss!

When moral injury is suspected, it is critical to have awareness that it exists! Don’t say things like “You did the right thing” “Great shot!” or “At least you’re alive.” Those statements dismiss the moral injury of doing something that goes against one’s character and has them shove their feelings deep down inside instead.

Be a therapist!

If an officer shows signs of moral injury, find out more information and ask questions! “Can you tell me a little bit more about the incident?” “Have you talked to people in your department about the way you are feeling?” “Why do you think your actions go against what you think is right?”

Create a safe space

If your partner is coming to talk to you about an incident, be careful not to judge. They are already judging themselves for their actions, so create a safe space for communication. Support, acknowledge, and validate their feelings.

Forgiveness

There has to be self-compassion and forgiveness for making a difficult decision or something that was against your moral code.  This can be difficult and may mean talking to peer support or seeking professional help. As a spouse, encourage forgiveness and moving into a place of compassion.

Moral Injury is a judgment that acts on your moral values and can bring up a lot of guilt and shame. With support, acknowledging its existence, and a lot of forgiveness, moral injuries can heal.

Lisa Duez is a licensed clinical social worker and owns her practice Turning Point Counseling and Consulting in Hampton Roads Virginia. Her clinical work has focused on working with law enforcement officers and their families, and she uses her lived experiences as well as EMDR and other trauma focused treatment modalities to assist with debriefings and respond to mass violence incidents. Lisa is the proud spouse of a law enforcement officer and a mother of two.

Turningpointva.com  

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Moral Injury

Lisa Duez talks about moral injury in law enforcement and the impact it can have on relationships.

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