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Guest column

Moral injury in the time of coronavirus

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I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the very challenging decisions that nonprofits across Missoula have been making. As I talk with fellow nonprofit leaders, I am hearing stories of reversing long-standing strategies or having to reinvent how they have to do their work, often with reduced impact, in the face of the required social distancing to keep our community safe.

At the Poverello Center, these policy changes often feel contrary to everything we have been doing up until now. We have been working as a team for many years to remove barriers for those that we serve; to make access to our services as simple as possible, and as inclusive of as many people as we safely can.

Now at the Pov, with a global pandemic at our heels, we are making an about-face, changing all policies to be more restrictive, reducing our capacity overnight shelter capacity to 98 people, and even going so far as constructing physical barriers, like a sneeze guard, between ourselves and our guests.

All of these changes are being made in the name of safety and at the recommendation of our local health department and the Centers for Disease Control. But that doesn't mean that it isn't hard, or painful, or potentially traumatic. For many of us, these changes may be causing moral injury. For others, these changes are making us feel safer and more able to do our jobs with some feeling of control over our chaotic environment.

So what is moral injury? The concept of moral injury is known to those working with military trauma as a deep wound to our conscience or moral code, resulting from committing, failing to prevent, or witnessing acts that go against our beliefs, values or code of ethics. It is an injury to our sense of self as a moral being.

At the Pov, putting a cap on the number of folks we serve can be a moral injury to those developing and implementing it. Having a cap means that we must sometimes deny shelter services to individuals who might desperately need them — and having to do this hurts. The policy changes that nonprofit leaders are making across Missoula are having a similar impact on themselves and their staff and volunteers.

Separately, I want you all to know that no matter how you are feeling about the pandemic, your feelings are normal.

You are having a normal response to an abnormal situation.

It is OK to grieve right now. It is OK to feel sad or angry. It is also OK to feel OK right now. It is OK to feel lost or lazy or unmotivated. All of these things are normal and completely understandable.

So, what can we do? I want to encourage you all to lean on your support systems. Talk to your people about how you are feeling. Talk to your colleagues or supervisor. Use your organization’s Employee Assistance Program to connect with a therapist. Take care of yourself outside of work doing things you enjoy. Prioritize sleep, eating well, drinking water and avoiding alcohol/substances that may make you feel worse in the long run. Read. Ride a motorcycle. Ride your bike. Go for a hike or a run. Take a bath. Cook a beautiful dish. Organize your closet. Call your mom.

Whatever makes this crazy world feel a little better for you.

I am with you and am feeling the same things as we grapple with this awful pandemic.

Thank you for working hard to make Missoula a better place for all our neighbors.

Amy Allison Thompson is a licensed clinical social worker and the executive director of the Poverello Center homeless shelter and soup kitchen in Missoula. 

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