Investigating the experience of female military members and veterans exposed to inappropriate sexual behaviour

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With support from the Government of Canada’s Defence Engagement Program, HRI has launched a collaborative effort to better understand the unique experience of servicewomen. Specifically, the project aims to explore the relationship between exposure to inappropriate sexual behaviour during military service and the onset of moral injury among female military members and veterans.

Moral injury refers to the psychological distress that individuals may experience when their personal moral beliefs have been betrayed – either by themselves or by someone else (e.g., an authority figure.)

“Inappropriate sexual behaviour has been linked to moral injury in other armed forces settings,” says Dr. Margaret McKinnon, Homewood Research Chair in Mental Health and Trauma, and lead investigator on the study.

“Unfortunately, the majority of studies to date have been conducted in U.S. settings, so the impact of this behaviour is unknown in the Canadian context.”

Experiences that lead to moral injury are strongly associated with the development of post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. With a better understanding of how moral injury may factor into the experiences of servicewomen affected by inappropriate sexual behaviour, treatment providers can intervene more quickly and effectively.

“Another major goal of this initiative is to mobilize scholars, clinicians and policy makers who can work with us to address concerns related to moral injury within these populations,” says McKinnon.

Key collaborators on this project include:

Focus groups are now underway with female military members and veterans to discuss their experiences and the events that may trigger potential feelings associated with moral injury, such as shame and guilt.

Workshops are also being held with researchers, clinicians, and scientists to examine the psychological consequences of exposure to inappropriate sexual behaviour and the potential steps that can be taken to address these concerns in partnership with the military.

On October 23, 2019, the research team hosted an interactive workshop at the annual Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Research (CIMVHR) Forum. Thought leaders from the government, academia, industry, health and philanthropic sectors were present to share ideas and insights on how to move research, prevention and intervention strategies forward.