The OHSU SHIELD (Safety and Health Improvement: Enhancing Law Enforcement Departments) and DOC (Department of Corrections) Study Team attended a seminar presented by stress psychologist Kevin Gilmartin, PhD, so to better understand the emotional impact of work associated with law enforcement and corrections. This study team, led by Principal Investigator Kerry Kuehl, is part of the Oregon Healthy Workforce Center (ORhwc). The Health Promotion in Corrections Officers study is a funded ORhwc project.
Dr Gilmartin teaches that law enforcement professionals are at risk for emotional disorders due to a constant state of hypervigilance. Hypervigilance is an enhanced or overloaded state of sensory sensitivity to detect threats and is an essential part of being a good cop. It is required to keep the officer and the public safe from the 3% of society that have criminal intent and ability to cause harm. It is a police officer’s job to be cynical, to not trust anyone, to always expect the worse, and this creates the state of hypervigilence which can create a neuropsychiatriac imbalance. The emotional investment and constant level of hypervigilence on the job required to maintain safety on the job for themselves, fellow officers, and the public creates a high during the work shift, but then it creates an opposite “low” off shift or when not working. The lack of understanding for this off shift ‘low” creates depression and other problems. This occupational-induced condition, which is unique to law enforcement officers, can lead to working too much overtime, sleep disorders, incremental weight gain, substance abuse, high incidence of broken relationships, and high suicide rates.
Dr. Gilmartin’s recommendation for emotional survival is three-fold: responsibility of personal life, increase in organizational relationships, and ethical decision-making. To overcome the cycle of highs and lows, lifestyle changes involving greater investment off-shift are required. The importance of exercising, committing to activities, and off-duty relationships are emphasized. To find out more about this topic and his work, read Dr. Gilmartin’s book, Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement.
Submitted by: Hannah Kuehl, OHSU Health Promotion & Sports Medicine