New research suggests that post-traumatic stress disorder is linked to social morality, a finding that helps elucidate the relationship between politics and veterans’ mental health.
“The clinical psychological literature suggests that a key factor in PTSD experienced by soldiers at war is the guilt that is experienced from perpetrated acts of violence that violate moral standards,” the study’s lead author, David Webber of the University of Alberta, explained to Raw Story. “This is why in our study we focused on guilt-related symptoms. In the sense that killing is deemed immoral in most cases, and soldiers are asked to kill, it’s only if a soldier is able to view that killing as different or acceptable (i.e., moral), that guilt should not arise.”
The study, to be published in the April issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found that social consensus played an important role in feelings of guilt. The research was co-authored by Jeff Schimel, Andy Martens, Joseph Hayes, and Erik H. Faucher.
Previous research has found that killing in war is a major risk factor for PTSD, which affects up to 25 percent of the veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Research has also uncovered that social support has a strong protective effect.
However, much of the research conducted on PTSD has relied on interviews with veterans. In their study, Webber and his colleagues described such research as “invaluable,” but noted that it also “limits the ability to draw causal conclusions.” They sought to employ an experimental design to better understand the relationship between social validation for killing and PTSD.
For their study, Webber and his colleagues had undergraduate students complete an “extermination task,” which involved killing ten woodlice with a coffee grinder. During one scenario, the student witnessed another participant completely refuse to kill the bugs because doing so was wrong. In a second scenario, the student witnessed another participant readily agree to kill the bug. In a third scenario, which was used as a control condition, the student had no interaction with another participant.
The study found that the students reported more distress and guilt when they perceived their actions to be social invalidated by others. When the killing of bugs appeared to be socially validated, on the other hand, the students reported less distress and guilt.
Webber told Raw Story that the research did not directly address PTSD in veterans, since killing bugs was obviously far removed from killing another human. But the study did find evidence that socially-constructed moral standards influenced feelings of distress and guilt.
Social invalidation and the anti-war movement
In their study, Webber and his colleagues noted that antiwar protests could actually put veterans at greater risk for PTSD. Though many people express antiwar sentiments while supporting the troops, Webber and his colleagues said such a position was paradoxical.
“Unfortunately, any form of protest arguing that a specific war should be ended or that our soldiers should not be fighting in this war inherently invalidates the war effort—i.e., informs soldiers that they should not be killing the enemy soldiers,” Webber said. “The negative consequences of protest should be most pronounced when the majority of the population disapproves of the war effort.”
But Webber made clear that it was politicians — not protesters — who were ultimately responsible for the situation. He advised politicians and officials to only push for war when it was irrefutable that military action should be taken. Wars based on “irrational fear or insecurities” eventually come to be viewed as unjust and veterans’ mental health suffers as a result.
“What we would suggest, however, is that it is not protest, per se, that puts a soldier’s mental health at risk, but the initial decision to go to war,” he explained. “War protest usually only occurs when that war is unfounded. If war is enacted for legitimate reasons, the public will usually support that effort. It is during times when there is no clear end goal for a war, or when the reasons for fighting are unclear that protest escalates, which leads to a war being invalidated.”
“In this sense, protest is a natural reaction to the situation,” Webber added. “Thus, while on the surface it appears that protest would impair psychological functioning via social invalidation, the protest is really driven by poor initial decisions to begin an unfounded war. We are not at all suggesting that people should not protest a war, but that wars need to be fought for legitimate reasons that the majority of the public will support over time.”