Can Doing the Wrong Thing Damage Your Mental Health?

Posted on: May 16th, 2019 by Pat Mesiti No Comments

Do you ever check the website The Conversation, which features only articles written by scholars? Gosh, it is high-brow but very informative. It recently had a brilliant article looking at how going against your own moral code can damage your mental health. It was written by psychologists from King’s College London. They studied how people’s mental health can be damaged by feelings of shame and guilt that come from doing things you know are “wrong” but people did these wrongs in difficult circumstances.

They call this phenomena ‘moral injury’ and define it as the psychological distress coming from actions or inactions, which violate your moral or ethical code. Often people are forced into going against their morals. An example they site is a humanitarian aid worker who cannot provide adequate healthcare to all patients or a soldier who shoots a child who was about to attack him. Sometimes the situations are grey. There just is not a right or wrong. In other situations people have clearly done the wrong thing, for examples humiliating someone.

As you know, I spent many years working for the church. God wants us to be good to others, because God knows that cruelty or unfair behaviour says more about the perpetrator than the victim. We are damaging and cheapening ourselves when we behave badly. As a spiritual person I know that bad behaviour eats away at the soul.

Wrong-doing is linked to depression and anxiety

These scholars argue that ‘moral injury’ is not a mental illness, but it can lead to negative thinking for example, “I am a terrible person” or “My colleagues don’t care about me”. It can also result in feelings of shame, guilt or disgust but these feelings can lead to mental health problems, like depression, PTSD and substance abuse.

Moral injury is not unique to any particular profession. It appears (according to the King’s College team) in different professions, such as journalists, police, teachers, military personnel and veterinarians and turns up in countries around the world.

On the King’s College team were Dr Victoria Williamson, Dominc Murphy, Professor Neil Greenberg and Sharon Stevelink. These scholars found evidence of moral injury in studies focussing on US military personnel and veterans. Research found moral injury can be caused by a range of experiences like committing harmful acts, failing to stop the harmful acts of others or just witnessing human suffering. 

Other ‘moral injury’ research has looked at British soldiers who committed acts like disrespecting dead bodies, witnessing human suffering, mistreating civilians or being ordered to break rules. British soldiers with moral injury suffered psychological distress, including intense feelings of shame, guilt, self-loathing and worthlessness.

The King’s College researchers found moral injury was also one of the greatest challenges faced by UK journalists covering the 2015 refugee crisis. The journalists reported witnessing behaviour among colleagues, aid workers and the local population that they considered to be morally wrong. Moral injury has also been reported in police officers, fire fighters and paramedics.

What support is there?

The experts found that people suffering moral injury are slow to look for help and counselling because moral injury causes intense feelings of shame, guilt and disgust, consequently those with the condition find it especially hard to seek help. They don’t think they deserve help. They also have concerns about the potential social and/or legal consequences of telling others what has happened.

Normal counselling may not work for moral injury. Treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder usually focus on making the individual face the emotions – such as shame or guilt – but people with moral injury need more help to make sense of these complex emotions and thoughts, according to the experts. 

Dr Victoria Williamson, Dominc Murphy, Professor Neil Greenberg and Sharon Stevelink found there is no established treatment for people with moral injury – although the experts suggest that a combination of approaches (like responsibility and compassion-focused therapy) to treat symptoms like guilt, shame and worthlessness could be useful. Cognitive behavioural therapy or changing thinking patterns is also useful in helping people to self-forgive. Some patients were asked to take part in exercises involving imagined conversations with a forgiving figure.

The experts found there is evidence that people can ‘psychologically grow’ after traumatic experiences and seeking professional help, if you need it, supports growth.

But the King’s College researchers believe we have a long way to go in understanding moral injury and much more research in the area is needed.

Do you think you might suffer from moral injury? 

Do you feel you have compromised yourself too much in a personal or professional situation? Were you pushed or bullied into doing something you now bitterly regret? Does this experience stay with you? Haunt you? Do you feel it is impacting on your mental health? Do you now suffer depression or anxiety or use drugs or alcohol to make the pain go away?

Get help if you need it

I encourage anyone struggling with mental health issues to reach out for help. See your doctor and get a referral to a registered psychologist or seek out a talented counsellor. There is never any shame in seeking help, self-denial is not a long-term solution.


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Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.


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