Thriving in the Midst of Moral Pain: The Acceptability and Feasibility of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Moral Injury (ACT-MI) Among Warzone Veterans

  • End date
    Mar 31, 2023
  • participants needed
  • sponsor
    VA Office of Research and Development
Updated on 23 March 2022
substance use
drug abuse


The need for moral injury interventions is increasingly being recognized as a domain in Veteran care that must be addressed. Consequences of exposure to morally injurious events include risk for suicide, substance abuse, and refractory symptoms of PTSD and depression. Exposure to morally injurious events is also highly prevalent among Veterans. Thus, interventions addressing moral injury are crucial to helping Veterans build meaningful lives. Psychotherapies explicitly targeting moral injury and functional recovery associated with this construct are limited in VHA. The proposed study serves as a first step in addressing this gap in the literature through the development of a recovery-oriented, evidence-based treatment approach for moral injury among warzone Veterans who report functional impairments related to moral emotions. The proposed pilot study will evaluate the acceptability of this intervention and the feasibility of the design for a future study to test the treatment's capacity to improve patients' functioning.


Warzone Veterans exposed to morally injurious events frequently experience numerous difficulties in functioning. These Veterans often report suicidal ideation and behavior, substance abuse, symptoms of depression and PTSD, and problems in resuming valued living (e.g., spiritual practice, close relationships). Despite the transdiagnostic nature of moral injury, there are no moral injury-specific transdiagnostic interventions. Existing interventions tend to be focused on treating moral injury in the context of PTSD. In addition to an emphasis on PTSD, these interventions target beliefs associated with moral injury as causal factors in the development and maintenance of suffering. An emphasis on altering beliefs associated with moral injury may not optimally facilitate functional recovery as moral pain from moral violations may be justified. As one third of warzone Veterans endorse exposure to morally injurious events, it is vital to develop interventions that can be efficiently disseminated in VHA to facilitate functional recovery. The ideal intervention must simultaneously address moral emotions and promote values consistent behavior in the face of these emotions.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for moral injury (ACT-MI) is a recovery-based, psychosocial treatment ideally suited for Veterans endorsing difficulties in functioning related to moral injury. ACT teaches skills to help Veterans relate differently to painful thoughts, emotions, urges, and sensations. Rather than focusing on symptom reduction, ACT is an evidence-based intervention that directly targets functional recovery by assisting Veterans in identifying and engaging in values-consistent behavior even in the presence of distress. In Veteran populations specifically, ACT has been demonstrated effective in treating suicidal ideation and depression and as a result, has been "rolled-out" as an evidence based psychotherapy for depression within VHA. ACT-MI operates on the principles of ACT, with an explicit focus on the social functions of moral emotions. ACT-MI is the only intervention for moral injury that is based on social functionalism which purports that moral emotions (e.g., shame, pride) serve evolutionary purposes essential to group survival. Thus learning to interact with moral emotions differently is crucial to recovery. In ACT-MI, a group-based intervention is used to facilitate in-vivo exposure to moral emotions in the context of values. The proposed two arm randomized controlled pilot study will evaluate the acceptability of ACT-MI and an active control treatment, and determine the feasibility of the randomized controlled trial design for a future full-scale efficacy study. To accomplish this goal the investigators will continue to refine ACT-MI. Veterans enrolled will be randomized to: (a) Present Centered Therapy (PCT) or (b) ACT-MI, both of which will consist of 12, 90-minute group sessions. The specific aims of this study are to: (1) Evaluate the acceptability of the ACT-MI intervention for Veterans experiencing impairment in functioning associated with moral injury, (2) Determine the feasibility of the efficacy study design, and to (3) Select measures and calculate the necessary sample size for a future efficacy study. The performance of validated scales will be measured, in addition to selected NIH Patient Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System modules. All participants will complete a baseline assessment, post treatment, and follow-up assessment one and three months after completion of ACT-MI or PCT. Participants in both groups will also complete a post-treatment assessment on the acceptability of the intervention. The proposed study represents a crucial first step in a line of research likely to yield a recovery oriented, empirically-supported intervention for moral injury among Veterans. The objectives of ACT-MI directly align with Rehabilitation Research and Development's goal to improve Veteran functioning, increase community reintegration, and to facilitate Veteran centered care.

Condition Moral Injury
Treatment Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Moral Injury (ACT-MI), Present Centered Therapy (PCT)
Clinical Study IdentifierNCT03760731
SponsorVA Office of Research and Development
Last Modified on23 March 2022


Yes No Not Sure

Inclusion Criteria

Eligible for VHA care
Has been deployed to a warzone
Has experienced a morally injurious event which continues to interfere with functioning
Willing to be randomized and participate in either of the two conditions

Exclusion Criteria

Inability to provide informed consent
Inability to complete study measures, e.g
due to significant acute intoxication/withdrawal symptoms
cognitive impairment
Imminent suicide risk
Membership in a vulnerable population, e.g
pregnant women
History of significant violence towards VA staff
Participation in another psychotherapy research study
Current participation in an EBP for a condition related to moral injury
Clear my responses

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