Pilot Study Testing a Web-Based Moral Elevation Intervention for Veterans With PTSD and Moral Injury

  • End date
    Aug 31, 2021
  • participants needed
  • sponsor
    VA Office of Research and Development
Updated on 7 March 2021


Given the prevalence of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and moral injury in combat Veterans and the limitations to current treatments, novel approaches are needed to target both PTSD and moral injury and directly impact psychosocial growth and functional recovery. One potential way to address this critical need is through moral elevation-a positive emotional state described as feeling uplifted and inspired by others' virtuous actions. This study will pilot a web-based moral elevation intervention with Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, and New Dawn Veterans who experienced a morally injurious event and with a PTSD diagnosis. If Veterans are willing and able to complete an online moral elevation intervention and it has beneficial effects, then moral elevation could be feasibly utilized as a tool to reverse the negative effects of trauma and facilitate recovery. Data from this study will be used to develop larger clinical trials to test if this intervention significantly improves PTSD symptoms and moral injury distress and enhances social functioning.


The goal of this proposed study is to conduct a pilot trial of a web-based moral elevation intervention to determine if such an intervention is a feasible and acceptable therapeutic approach for Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, and New Dawn Veterans with distress related to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and moral injury (MI). This study will also assess the feasibility of randomization, retention, and completion of a no-treatment condition (i.e., comparison group) in preparation for future randomized controlled trials (RCTs). The sample will include 24 Veterans (12 per group). The online intervention consists of two exercises per week for one month, totaling eight sessions. Sessions will include watching validated videos that elicit moral elevation and recalling moments when one experienced moral elevation in daily life, paired with journaling about one's reactions to witnessed virtuous behavior. Participants in the intervention condition will also be presented with a brief goal to be completed prior to the next session to facilitate greater social engagement. Participants randomized to the no-treatment condition will access the same online portal twice per week, but will not be exposed to any intervention components. All participants will complete brief self-report measures at each online session. All participants will also complete self-report measures at baseline and 1-month follow-up that will assess PTSD symptoms, MI distress, prosocial behavior, and quality of social relationships. At the follow-up assessment, participants randomized to the intervention condition will complete an individual qualitative interview with a member of the study team to assess acceptability and satisfaction with the intervention and proposed methodology, which will be coded and analyzed to inform future clinical trials. To supplement self-report measures, all participants will invite a significant other (e.g., spouse, close friend) to complete measures based on observations of the Veteran's behavior and social functioning at baseline and 1-month follow-up. Feasibility of recruitment, retention, and completion of the intervention will be analyzed by tracking the number of participants retained at each stage of the study, as well as the number of sessions completed in the intervention. Results from this study will be used to develop an RCT with a larger sample size to determine the efficacy of a moral elevation intervention and assess whether this novel approach leads to unique beneficial outcomes regarding PTSD and moral injury distress.

Condition Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders, Moral Injury, PTSD
Treatment Moral Elevation intervention
Clinical Study IdentifierNCT03906240
SponsorVA Office of Research and Development
Last Modified on7 March 2021


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Inclusion Criteria

Is your age greater than or equal to 18 yrs?
Gender: Male or Female
Do you have any of these conditions: Moral Injury or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Do you have any of these conditions: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or Moral Injury or PTSD?
Do you have any of these conditions: PTSD or Moral Injury or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Do you have any of these conditions: Moral Injury or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders or PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Veteran Participant Inclusion Criteria
years of age
OEF/OIF/OND Veteran enrolled in CTVHCS
English-speaking and able to provide written informed consent
Internet access for web-based sessions and measures
Current PTSD diagnosis based on medical chart review or screen positively for a probable diagnosis based on empirically-validated cutoffs on the PTSD Checklist for DSM-5
Screen positively for experiencing 1 morally injurious event and endorse some distress (>4 on any item) related to that event based on the Moral Injury Events Scale (MIES)
Willing to complete study procedures and identify an SO who will complete observational measures
Willing to be randomized
Significant Other Participant Inclusion Criteria
years of age
Designated as a Significant Other by the Veteran participant, and the Veteran participant has provided consent for the study team to contact that potential Significant Other
Internet access for web-based observational measures
Interact with the Veteran >1 time per week
Willing to complete study procedures

Exclusion Criteria

Veteran Participant Exclusion Criteria
History of severe traumatic brain injury indicated by medical review and the Ohio State Traumatic Brain Injury Identification Method (OSU TBI-ID)
Psychosis or current substance use disorder indicated by medical review and the Mini International Neuropsychiatric Interview (MINI)
Current suicide risk based on the Beck Depression Inventory-II (BDI-II)
Significant Other Participant Exclusion Criteria
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