Moral injury and suicidal behavior among US combat veterans: Results from the 2019-2020 National Health and Resilience in Veterans Study

Depress Anxiety. 2021 Jun;38(6):606-614. doi: 10.1002/da.23145. Epub 2021 Mar 5.


Background: Recent research suggests that exposure to potentially morally injurious experiences (PMIEs) may be associated with increased risk for suicidal behavior among US combat veterans, but population-based data on these associations are scarce. This study examined the association between PMIEs with current suicidal ideation (SI), lifetime suicide plans (SP), and suicide attempts (SA) in a contemporary, nationally representative sample of combat veterans.

Methods: Data were analyzed from the 2019-2020 National Health and Resilience in Veterans Study, which surveyed a nationally representative sample of US combat veterans (n = 1321). PMIEs were assessed using the Moral Injury Events Scale (MIES). Multivariable logistic regression analyses were conducted to examine associations between MIES total scores and specific types of PMIEs with suicidal behavior.

Results: Thirty-six point three percent of veterans reported at least one PMIE. Perceived transgressions by self, others, and betrayal were associated with SI, SP, and SA (odds ratios [ORs] = 1.21-1.27, all p s < .05), after adjusting for sociodemographic, trauma, and psychiatric characteristics. MIES total scores were significantly, albeit weakly, associated with SP (OR = 1.03, p < .01), but not SI/SA. Depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and age emerged as the strongest correlates of SI/SP/SA (14.9%-38.1% of explained variance), while PMIEs accounted for a comparatively modest amount of variance (3.3%-8.9%).

Conclusions: Reports of potentially morally injurious experiences are prevalent among US combat veterans, and associated with increased risk for suicidal behavior, above and beyond severity of combat exposure, PTSD, and depression. Implications for clinical practice and future research are discussed, including the need for methodological advancements in the measurement of moral injury.

Keywords: PTSD; military; moral injury; morally injurious experiences; suicidal behavior; suicide; veterans.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Risk Factors
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic*
  • Suicidal Ideation
  • Suicide, Attempted
  • Veterans*