Health & Wellness
Moral injury: The lesser-known risk to law enforcement
October 16, 2023 By Isabelle Sauvé
Law enforcement personnel are often hailed as heroes who put their lives on the line to serve and protect. The truth is, they also put their emotional and psychological health at risk. Without question, working in law enforcement is demanding on various levels and can take a significant toll, and a substantial risk faced by members is moral injury. This term denotes the psychological distress which arises from exposure to or participation in events that violate one’s moral or ethical code. Morally injurious experiences frequently co-habit within the context of trauma; however, it is significant to highlight that moral injury, although closely associated with post-traumatic symptoms, is considered a distinct and separate syndrome from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Undoubtedly, exposure to traumatic events can happen regularly in the field of law enforcement. Officers often find themselves in precarious situations, attempting to navigate to moral safety amidst competing ethical obligations for both care and duty. Furthermore, police officers are often called upon to intervene in situations that involve violence, abuse and neglect they simply may not be able to resolve. Repeated exposure to these incidents can wreak havoc on mental health. The situations can potentiate moral turmoil, which then may lead to significant distress. Exposure examples include being expected to enforce a law the individual does not believe in or witnessing a colleague engage in wrongdoing. Emotional dysregulation can occur as a result of a myriad of emotions such as: shame, guilt, contempt, anger or betrayal. The negative impact can have a wide range of consequences and bolster long-term psychological harm.
Left unaddressed, deep feelings of cynicism, depression, helplessness, hopelessness and despair can surface. Over time it can impede one’s ability to perform their duties effectively and to live happily. It can also bolster a loss of trust in the criminal justice system and a sense of isolation from coworkers and the wider community. In more extreme cases, moral injury has invited a host of self-destructive behaviors such as substance abuse, self-harm and death by suicide. Sadly, research results suggest moral injury is a strong predictor of death by suicide among military personnel, veterans and law enforcement members (Cameron et al.).
Addressing moral injury is not only a matter of addressing individual need but also of continuously working towards a more just and ethical criminal justice system.Advertisement
With the recently increased focus on improved psychological support for law enforcement, it’s being recognized that those working in law enforcement are at a higher risk of experiencing moral injury. Mental health professionals are making substantial efforts to address and tackle this issue by providing not only support, but also education. Knowledge can assist law enforcement members self-identify and cope with situations that may predispose them to moral injury. Building on the wealth of existing knowledge related to post-traumatic stress can also be an effective avenue in which to address moral injury. The research already suggests a need for targeted mental, emotional and spiritual tools to taper intense emotions, for the integration of fractured belief systems, a resolution of internal dissonance, the re-establishment of trust and social connections, and the engagement of forgiveness and gratitude practices (Griffin et al.).
Law enforcement members can also take a proactive approach on their own wellness by adopting preventative measures to promote good health. Taking action—such as talking to a trusted person, objectively reflecting on the morally injurious event, or by seeking professional support—is also indispensable.
From an organizational standpoint, continuously working towards a more supportive organizational culture, such as promoting open communication between officers and management, providing opportunities for peer support and mentoring, as well as ensuring that officers have access to the resources needed to cope with the demands of their job, is crucial. Such measures can prevent moral injury and support officers who have already experienced it.
Additionally, addressing moral injury is not only a matter of addressing individual need but also of continuously working towards a more just and ethical criminal justice system.
Moral injury is a significant health risk for law enforcement professionals that necessitates a multi-faceted approach encompassing several components, such as: offering training and support to officers, creating a more supportive organizational culture, and working towards a more just and ethical criminal justice system. By doing so, we can help to protect the mental health and well-being of members and back them in continuing to serve their communities effectively.
Isabelle Sauvé has a MA in psychology and is a PhD candidate. She is also an ultramarathon/endurance athlete and the Racing the Planet/4 Deserts 2018 Series winner as well as a Guinness World record holder. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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