WHISTLEBLOWER TRAUMA, RECOVERY AND RENEWAL

Written by Dr Derek Kerr & Dr Maria Rivero GAP Blog Category: FAQ Created: Tuesday, 12 May 2015 21:10 Published: Tuesday, 12 May 2015 21:10 Hits: 673

http://whistleblower.org/blog/100323-whistleblower-trauma-recovery-and-renewal

Derek Kerr, MD and Maria Rivero, MD, April 23, 2015 - See more at: http://whistleblower.org/blog/100323-whistleblower-trauma-recovery-and-renewal#sthash.zT1bdOJL.dpuf

Derek Kerr, MD and Maria Rivero, MD, April 23, 2015 - See more at: http://whistleblower.org/blog/100323-whistleblower-trauma-recovery-and-renewal#sthash.zT1bdOJL.dpuf

 

Those attending GAP’s Whistleblower Tours now receive a leaflet describing “The 6 Stages of Whistleblowing”;

1) Discovery 2) Disclosure 3) Retaliation 4) Isolation (by fearful co-workers) 5) Solidarity (with allies, reporters, regulators, support groups) 6) Vindication (via public recognition and organizational reform)

These 6 stages align with GAP’s mission to support and vindicate whistleblowers who serve public interests. However, the whistleblower’s journey doesn’t end with vindication, important though it is. For one thing, validation in the public arena eludes most of us. Even vindicated whistleblowers struggle to recover from the ordeals of retaliation and protracted battles for justice. These are traumatic events, defined by the National Institutes of Health as; “an experience that causes physical, emotional, psychological distress or harm (and) is perceived and experienced as a threat to one’s safety or to the stability of one’s world”.

Being driven from the workplace through rituals of degradation, strikes at the heart of one’s identity, life trajectory, and survival needs. Reprisals aimed to discredit and intimidate whistleblowers are calculated forms of social rejection. Studies in neuro-imaging show that social rejection registers in the same areas of the brain that process physical pain.1 Therefore, whether vindicated or not, we suffer primal fears and identity crises related to painful losses - of trust, employment, relationships, and even livelihoods. In psychiatric parlance, such traumas may trigger “Adjustment Disorders” - functional impairments associated with anxiety and depression. Nonetheless, unmoorings can be liberating. Expulsion from one setting can mean induction into a new life-path. To succeed, the courage that exposed wrongdoing must be reconfigured to navigate through Recovery and Renewal - steps 7 and 8.

Avoiding Moral Injury

Typically, whistleblowers have pro-active personalities; tending to take action to influence their surroundings. We are problem-solvers who take responsibility. The research consensus views whistleblowing as “pro-social organizational behavior” related to altruism and professional commitment.2 Though motives are difficult to discern and often mixed, whistleblowers feel compelled to speak out. We propose that alongside the altruism that drives whistleblowers is moral self-preservation – an avoidance of Moral Injury. That whistleblowers recoil from self-degradation is apparent in such commonly heard explanations as; “I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t speak out”, or “I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror if I’d just gone along”.

Moral Injury is a type of trauma identified in military veterans diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) 3. PTSD is an adjustment disorder precipitated by a terrifying event involving physical harm or the threat of it. Accordingly, its symptoms include hyper-arousal, anxiety, as well as intrusive flashbacks, ruminations and nightmares. Moral Injury is a reaction to moral transgression rather than to life-threatening trauma.4 It stems from “perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations”.5 Thus, Moral Injury is guilt-based while PTSD is fear-based.

The aftermath of Moral Injury involves “highly aversive and haunting states of inner conflict and turmoil” characterized by guilt, shame, anguish, demoralization, and self-condemnation.5 Further, there’s a “shrinkage of one’s moral horizon” and “deformities of character” such as losing the capacity to trust or care for others.4 Since recovery requires the support of a caring community, this erosion of trust sabotages healing and wrecks lives. Veterans grappling with Moral Injury are the most likely to consider suicide.6-8 In all walks of life, averting moral injury is clearly desirable.

Shay identifies “leadership malpractice” as a precipitant of moral injury. 4 One antidote is the moral courage to speak truth to power, and making it safe to do so. We view whistleblowing as a means of preventing moral injury - as well as injustice. As Martin Luther King, Jr. exhorted; “Never, never be afraid to do what is right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way”.

Moral Narcissism?

Alford studied several dozen whistleblowers whose motivations he characterized as “Moral Narcissism”. 9 He suggests that whistleblowers develop an idealized self-image founded upon “ethical purity”. They aspire to the better parts of human nature. Upon realizing that organizations are amoral, that truth and justice don’t matter, and that their principles are viewed as threats, they are deeply wounded. For Alford, only “wounded narcissism” has the power to compel whistleblowers to risk everything to challenge authority.

Alford’s cohort was so demoralized that 80% would not speak out again. Other studies report that most whistleblowers would do it again.10-13 This difference suggests that Alford’s subjects had not reached Recovery or Renewal. In that sense, they resemble persons incapacitated by “Post-Traumatic Embitterment Syndrome”.14 Social rejection and betrayal are not only traumatic but become corrosive without a recovery process.

Recovery from Whistleblower Trauma

Despite the paucity of research on recovery from whistleblower trauma, much can be inferred from research on similar life crises such as bereavement, disabling injuries15 and workplace bullying.16 Since the essence of whistleblower trauma is rejection and persecution, the recovery process involves empowerment and communal acceptance. Initially, there must be effective coping with the turmoil, loss and grief. Regaining and maintaining a sense of control is key. At some point, grieving and accepting ones losses becomes necessary and allows a glimpse of an inviolable, true self. Eventually, a sense of affirmation coexists with suffering. Although Recovery is facilitated by optimism and resilience, there’s a place for courage - the bearing of adversity without devolving into victimhood.

Reclaiming ones place in the world requires faith in oneself plus the support of family, friends and allies. Allies include other whistleblowers, public interest groups like GAP17, as well as trauma-informed psychotherapists and physicians. Building these alliances entails admitting woundedness to pursue healing. Personal recovery is exemplified by regaining a sense of control, making sense of the experience, affirming ones worth, and re-engaging in life. When one feels a new sense of purpose, and is ready and able to help others, Renewal is at hand.

Growth, Renewal and Transformation

Over 50% of trauma survivors show signs of growth such as increased self-confidence, enhanced relationships (often by experiencing vulnerability), and a deeper appreciation of life.(18) Likewise, many whistleblowers gain a new sense of courage and self-esteem. Such positive outcomes only emerge after struggling through traumatic identity crises. Helen Keller predicted what modern research now shows; “Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved”. Suffering through adversity can reveal new dimensions of the self - provided that one finds meaning in the suffering. Viktor Frankl, who survived the horrors of Auschwitz, emphasized that attaching meaning to suffering generates hope and that we are free to define our attitude to a situation.19

Changing course may not feel like a free choice. Once driven from their workplaces, whistleblowers and bullied workers often fear returning to organizational work. Some are black-listed. They re-invent themselves via “push-motivation” 16 . Even so, the pariah’s harness gives way to an expansive sense of agency.

Renewal is facilitated by viewing oneself as master of one’s fate, and seeing crises as survivable challenges rather than tragic losses. The goal is to gradually let go of an old self while becoming a new person. This transition occurs between old and new support systems that reduce isolation, foster personal growth and provide opportunities to help others. We can transcend whistleblower trauma by transmuting it into social action that empowers truth-tellers.

References:



1) Eisenberger, N.I., “The neural bases of social pain: Evidence for shared representations with physical pain”. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2012:74(2); 126-135. 2) Miceli, M.P., Near, J.P., Dworkin, T.M., “Whistleblowing in Organizations”, Routledge, New York, 2008; 35-66. 3) http://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/co-occurring/moral_injury_at_war.asp 4) Shay, J. “Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character”. Scribner, New York, 1994. See also http://youtu.be/BJWZyZun27g 5) Litz, B., Maguen, S. “Moral Injury in Veterans of War”. PTSD Research Quarterly. 2012: 23(1); 1-6. 6) Hendin, H., Haas, A.P., “Suicide and Guilt as Manifestations of PTSD in Vietnam Combat Veterans”. American Journal of Psychiatry. 1991: 48: 586-591. 7) Maguen, S., Metzler,T., Bosch, J. et al. “Killing in Combat May be Independently Associated with Suicidal Ideation”. Depression and Anxiety. 2012 Nov: 29(11) 918-923. 8) Fontana, A., Rosenheck,R., Brett, E. :War Zone Traumas and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder Symptomatology”. J Nerv Ment Dis. 1992 Dec: 180(12) 748-755. 9) Alford, C.F., “Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power”. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2001. 10) Jos, P.H., Tompkins, M.E., Hays, S.W., “In Praise of Difficult People: A Portrait of the Committed Whistleblower”. Public Administration Review: 1989, 49(6): 552-561. 11) Farnsworth, C.H. “Survey of Whistleblowers Finds Retaliation but few Regrets”, New York Times, February 22, 1987. 12) Glazer, M.P., Glazer, P.M. “The Whistleblowers: Exposing Corruption in Government & Industry”. Basic Books, New York, 1989 (230-237). 13) Kesselheim, A.S., Studdert, D.M., Mello, M.M. “Whistle-Blowers’ Experiences in Fraud Litigation against

Derek Kerr, MD and Maria Rivero, MD, April 23, 2015

Those attending GAP’s Whistleblower Tours now receive a leaflet describing “The 6 Stages of Whistleblowing”;

1) Discovery
2) Disclosure
3) Retaliation
4) Isolation (by fearful co-workers)
5) Solidarity (with allies, reporters, regulators, support groups)
6) Vindication (via public recognition and organizational reform)

These 6 stages align with GAP’s mission to support and vindicate whistleblowers who serve public interests. However, the whistleblower’s journey doesn’t end with vindication, important though it is. For one thing, validation in the public arena eludes most of us. Even vindicated whistleblowers struggle to recover from the ordeals of retaliation and protracted battles for justice.  These are traumatic events, defined by the National Institutes of Health as; “an experience that causes physical, emotional, psychological distress or harm (and) is perceived and experienced as a threat to one’s safety or to the stability of one’s world”.

Being driven from the workplace through rituals of degradation, strikes at the heart of one’s identity, life trajectory, and survival needs. Reprisals aimed to discredit and intimidate whistleblowers are calculated forms of social rejection. Studies in neuro-imaging show that social rejection registers in the same areas of the brain that process physical pain [^1]. Therefore, whether vindicated or not, we suffer primal fears and identity crises related to painful losses - of trust, employment, relationships, and even livelihoods. In psychiatric parlance, such traumas may trigger “Adjustment Disorders” - functional impairments associated with anxiety and depression. Nonetheless, unmoorings can be liberating. Expulsion from one setting can mean induction into a new life-path. To succeed, the courage that exposed wrongdoing must be reconfigured to navigate through Recovery and Renewal - steps 7 and 8.

Avoiding Moral Injury

Typically, whistleblowers have pro-active personalities; tending to take action to influence their surroundings. We are problem-solvers who take responsibility. The research consensus views whistleblowing as “pro-social organizational behavior” related to altruism and professional commitment [^2]. Though motives are difficult to discern and often mixed, whistleblowers feel compelled to speak out. We propose that alongside the altruism that drives whistleblowers is moral self-preservation – an avoidance of Moral Injury. That whistleblowers recoil from self-degradation is apparent in such commonly heard explanations as; “I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t speak out”, or “I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror if I’d just gone along”.

Moral Injury is a type of trauma identified in military veterans diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) [^3]. PTSD is an adjustment disorder precipitated by a terrifying event involving physical harm or the threat of it. Accordingly, its symptoms include hyper-arousal, anxiety, as well as intrusive flashbacks, ruminations and nightmares. Moral Injury is a reaction to moral transgression rather than to life-threatening trauma [^4]. It stems from “perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations” [^5]. Thus, Moral Injury is guilt-based while PTSD is fear-based.

The aftermath of Moral Injury involves “highly aversive and haunting states of inner conflict and turmoil” characterized by guilt, shame, anguish, demoralization, and self-condemnation [^5]. Further, there’s a “shrinkage of one’s moral horizon” and “deformities of character” such as losing the capacity to trust or care for others [^4]. Since recovery requires the support of a caring community, this erosion of trust sabotages healing and wrecks lives. Veterans grappling with Moral Injury are the most likely to consider suicide [^6-8]. In all walks of life, averting moral injury is clearly desirable.

Shay identifies “leadership malpractice” as a precipitant of moral injury [^4]. One antidote is the moral courage to speak truth to power, and making it safe to do so. We view whistleblowing as a means of preventing moral injury - as well as injustice. As Martin Luther King, Jr. exhorted; “Never, never be afraid to do what is right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way”.

- See more at: http://whistleblower.org/blog/100323-whistleblower-trauma-recovery-and-renewal#sthash.zT1bdOJL.dpuf
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