Trauma, change in strength of religious faith, and mental health service use among veterans treated for PTSD

J Nerv Ment Dis. 2004 Sep;192(9):579-84. doi: 10.1097/01.nmd.0000138224.17375.55.


One of the most pervasive effects of traumatic exposure is the challenge that people experience to their existential beliefs concerning the meaning and purpose of life. Particularly at risk is the strength of their religious faith and the comfort that they derive from it. The purpose of this study is to examine a model of the interrelationships among veterans' traumatic exposure, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), guilt, social functioning, change in religious faith, and continued use of mental health services. Data are drawn from studies of outpatient (N = 554) and inpatient (N = 831) specialized treatment of PTSD in Department of Veterans Affairs programs. Structural equation modeling is used to estimate the parameters of the model and evaluate its goodness of fit to the data. The model achieved acceptable goodness of fit and suggested that veterans' experiences of killing others and failing to prevent death weakened their religious faith, both directly and as mediated by feelings of guilt. Weakened religious faith and guilt each contributed independently to more extensive use of VA mental health services. Severity of PTSD symptoms and social functioning played no significant role in the continued use of mental health services. We conclude that veterans' pursuit of mental health services appears to be driven more by their guilt and the weakening of their religious faith than by the severity of their PTSD symptoms or their deficits in social functioning. The specificity of these effects on service use suggests that a primary motivation of veterans' continuing pursuit of treatment may be their search for a meaning and purpose to their traumatic experiences. This possibility raises the broader issue of whether spirituality should be more central to the treatment of PTSD, either in the form of a greater role for pastoral counseling or of a wider inclusion of spiritual issues in traditional psychotherapy for PTSD.

MeSH terms

  • Ambulatory Care
  • Combat Disorders / diagnosis
  • Combat Disorders / psychology
  • Combat Disorders / therapy
  • Guilt
  • Hospitalization
  • Humans
  • Life Change Events*
  • Male
  • Mental Health Services / statistics & numerical data*
  • Middle Aged
  • Motivation
  • Pastoral Care
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales / statistics & numerical data
  • Psychotherapy / methods
  • Regression Analysis
  • Religion*
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Social Adjustment
  • Spirituality
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / diagnosis
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / psychology*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / therapy*
  • United States
  • United States Department of Veterans Affairs
  • Veterans / psychology*