Mindful Self Compassion for Combat Deployed Veterans With Moral Injury and Co-occurring PTSD-SUD

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VA Office of Research and Development




Moral Injury
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
Substance Use Disorder


Behavioral: Mindful Self-Compassion

Study type


Funder types

Other U.S. Federal agency


1I21RX002893-01A1 (U.S. NIH Grant/Contract)

Details and patient eligibility


Veterans with co-occurring Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Substance Use Disorder (PTSD-SUD) experience more severe symptomatology and poorer response to existing treatments than Veterans with either disorder alone. Guilt is a common posttraumatic reaction and has been implicated as a risk factor for the development and maintenance of PTSD and substance use. Combat Veterans often report experiencing moral injury defined as perpetrating, failing to prevent, or witnessing acts that violate the values they live by in their civilian lives, which can lead to feelings of guilt and shame. Accordingly, reduction in guilt and increase in self-compassion may lead to improved quality of life for Veterans. This project will conduct a pilot study to evaluate changes in self-compassion, guilt, and PTSD-SUD symptom severity in a sample of Veterans after receiving 8 sessions of Mindful Self Compassion treatment (via a telehealth modality during COVID-19 pandemic). Findings will have significant impact on effective treatment options and lead to improvements in Veterans' quality of life and posttraumatic symptoms.

Full description

PTSD-SUD is particularly common following combat exposure, affecting a rapidly increasing number of U.S. military Veterans. The co-occurrence of these disorders presents added challenges to the VA treatment delivery system, presently in need of effective integrated treatments. Veterans with PTSD-SUD experience more severe symptomatology, increased risk of suicidality, poorer quality of life, and poorer response to existing treatments than Veterans with either disorder alone. Furthermore, PTSD-SUD prevents Veterans from reintegrating into society and is associated with occupational and social dysfunction. These findings underscore the need to effectively and efficiently address comorbidity and the complex array of problems with which Veterans present to treatment. One approach is to develop interventions that target mechanisms thought to underlie multiple highly prevalent disorders, such as guilt related to traumatic experiences. Combat Veterans often report experiencing moral injury defined as perpetrating, failing to prevent, or witnessing acts that violate the values they live by in their civilian lives. Veterans who negatively appraise their actions or inaction during combat may experience guilt, a common posttraumatic reaction. Moral injury suggests the inability to contextualize or justify actions and the unsuccessful accommodation of those morally challenging experiences into pre-existing moral schemas, resulting in guilt and shame. Posttraumatic guilt has been implicated as a risk factor for the development and maintenance of several forms of psychopathology including PTSD, SUD, depression, and suicidality. However, to date, treatments for posttraumatic psychological health issues have been primarily disorder specific, with a focus largely on symptom reduction. Therefore, greater understanding of modifiable factors that influence functional impairment and PTSD-SUD is needed to enhance treatment efforts. Mindful Self Compassion (MSC) combines the skills of mindfulness and self-compassion, providing self-soothing skills to respond to difficult thoughts and feelings (including guilt) via meditation. Self-compassion (SC) emphasizes kindness towards one's self, a feeling of connectedness with others, and mindful awareness of distressing experiences. Furthermore, because SC is negatively associated with self-criticism, rumination, thought suppression, anxiety, and depression, and positively associated with healthy psychological functioning, it is well suited to addressing posttraumatic psychopathology, shame, and guilt. This proposal will begin to address a gap in the field's knowledge about MSC, and its role in the treatment of co-occurring disorders in Veterans with moral injury. The investigators will evaluate changes in self-compassion, post-traumatic guilt, shame, PTSD and substance use symptom severity. In addition to symptom reduction, the investigators will focus on functional outcomes (e.g., quality of life, suicidality). Participants will complete assessments at baseline, post-treatment, and 1-month follow-up. This project will allow us to 1) determine the feasibility of recruitment, 2) determine the acceptability of MSC, 3) provide preliminary evidence of the effects of MSC, and 4) refine study procedures and make adaptations to MSC based upon experience gained in the pilot in preparation for a fully powered RCT to test the effectiveness of MSC.


34 patients




18+ years old


No Healthy Volunteers

Inclusion criteria

  • moral injury as captured by at least one "strongly agree" response on the Moral Injury Events Scale
  • diagnosis of PTSD (within the last 30 days) confirmed by the Clinician Administered PTSD Scale (CAPS) with a total symptom score of 22 or more
  • diagnosis of a substance use disorder confirmed by the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-5 Section E (SCID-E) within the last year
  • willing and able to provide informed consent
  • not currently receiving trauma-focused treatment

Exclusion criteria

  • individuals with an acute psychotic disorder or acute psychotic symptoms are not eligible if their symptoms are unstable and if they are not well connected with appropriate mental health services

  • patients with a psychiatric hospitalization or suicide attempt within the past month will be excluded

  • currently receiving trauma-focused treatment, e.g., (PE, CPT, CBT for PTSD)

    • Patients currently enrolled in trauma-focused treatment may be enrolled when they have completed the treatment if they remain interested and continue to have PTSD
  • individuals with life-threatening or unstable medical illness. Diagnoses of mild cognitive impairment (e.g. mTBI) and other anxiety and depressive disorders will not be excluded because of their high comorbidity with PTSD and SUD

Trial design

Primary purpose




Interventional model

Single Group Assignment


None (Open label)

34 participants in 1 patient group

Experimental group
Mindful Self-Compassion Intervention
Behavioral: Mindful Self-Compassion

Trial contacts and locations



Data sourced from clinicaltrials.gov

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