Mobilizing experts to address sexual misconduct in the military

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In October 2019, 50 stakeholders from across Canada attended a workshop at the annual Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research Forum. The workshop focused on the psychological consequences of sexual misconduct during military service.

Researchers, policy makers, military members, veterans, and clinicians convened to explore the relation between exposure to sexual misconduct during military service and the onset of moral injury among female military members and veterans.

To mobilize action on these discussions, HRI hosted a symposium on December 3, 2019. Funded by the Government of Canada’s Defence Engagement Program, the symposium brought Canadian military and non-military experts together with a common goal of supporting the Canadian Armed Forces in addressing sexual misconduct.

The role of moral injury

Canada patch flags on soldiers arm

Work at HRI is exploring whether exposure to sexual misconduct in military environments is related to the onset of moral injury. For example, sexual misconduct may result in moral injury when an incident involves a perceived betrayal by those within a circle of trust or by an authority figure.

Similarly, a military member could be morally wounded by witnessing – but being unable to stop – a colleague from sexually harassing another military member.

The interplay between sexual misconduct and moral injury is complex and requires further investigation. What is known, however, is that military members affected by sexual misconduct in the workplace are at increased risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and suicide.

Moving research, prevention, and intervention forward

During the December 3 symposium, discussions were diverse but focused on barriers, resources, and actionable items to affect change, including:

  • The rise of the internet and social media in skewing views of normal sexual behaviour and consent
  • Optimizing available resources for affected members, including the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre
  • Celebrating current training and education initiatives, including Operation Honour
  • Expanding education focused on emotional intelligence, boundary setting, assertiveness, bystander roles, and moral dilemmas
  • Understanding the needs of LGBTQ+ members, indigenous members, and members with disabilities
  • Improving screening tools to identify affected members or those at high risk of perpetrating sexual misconduct
  • Improving treatment and intervention approaches to help affected members
  • Vital research needs, including the need to explore where best to target resources, the link between sexual misconduct and moral injury, how to facilitate culture change among all levels and ranks, the value of peer support, and the need to expand research to include male, LGBTQ+ and non-binary members

Group of symposium attendees, December 3, 2019The symposium was attended by 18 representatives of leading universities, research centres, and treatment providers, as well as the Department of National Defence, Veteran’s Affairs Canada, Servicewomen’s Salute, and the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research.

Dr. Margaret McKinnon, Homewood Research Chair in Mental Health and Trauma, is the lead investigator on this research. Key collaborators include: