Experiences of Potentially Morally Injurious Events among New Zealand Defence Force Personnel
Help-seeking for mental health concerns, and the barriers that individuals encounter that prevent them from help-seeking, are particularly important to address within the military. Among other reasons, untreated mental health concerns have been associated with increased homelessness, alcohol abuse, and relationship breakdowns (Dandeker, et al., 2003; As cited in Walker, 2010). Within the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) context, barriers to help-seeking have been associated with experiencing greater psychological distress (Hom, et al., 2020). One specific form of distress that has the potential to impact the overall well-being of NZDF personnel is moral injury - the harm that occurs to individuals when an event occurs that conflicts with that individual’s personal beliefs or morals (MacDonald, et al., 2018).
The purpose of this research is to identify the impact of moral injury on NZDF personnel, and specifically how it impacts help-seeking behaviours. The role of guilt and shame was examined as the driving force behind this relationship. A survey of 4092 NZDF personnel was examined, 1947 of whom had been deployed. Of the deployed individuals, 23.6% had reported exposure to a potentially morally injurious event (PMIE), and 18.2% had experienced guilt or shame over an event whilst on deployment. Counter to expectations, there was no significant relationship found between PMIEs and future help-seeking intentions, nor did guilt mediate the relationship between PMIEs and help-seeking. However, concerns regarding the impact that help-seeking would have on one’s career (professional concerns) functioned as a suppressor variable and, once included, accounted for 36.2% of the relationship between PMIEs and help-seeking. Further, emotions of guilt and shame were found to account for 49.2% of the variance in PMIEs and the barrier of professional concerns. These findings suggest that the role that guilt and shame have on the relationship between PMIEs and help-seeking occurs indirectly, through the relationship between PMIEs and career concerns.
The role of guilt and shame was complex, and included associations with help-seeking - for individuals who held professional concerns, help-seeking decreased. However, for individuals who held less professional concerns, help-seeking increased. Guilt and shame also protected against the relationship between PMIEs with distress and mental health concerns in a moderation, and enhanced relationship warmth for individuals who had experienced a PMIE. This suggests that experiencing guilt and shame whilst on deployment may also have positive implications on an individual’s overall well-being, as opposed to a purely negative impact. The protective aspect of guilt and shame should be further explored within soldiers' pre-deployment training, so they are better prepared for the possibility of experiencing these adverse emotions, and to explain how both guilt and shame can serve a beneficial purpose.