Mental Health and Dentistry: Know the Signs, Eliminate the Stigma, and Find Help

Ken Cooper
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When we think of our dentists and oral professionals, we often do not see them as sad, worrisome, isolated, withdrawn, or frustrated—or worse, anxious, angry, and suicidal. These feelings all could be symptoms of mental health illness, various mood states that can often be well-hidden yet extremely harmful to a person’s psychological and physical health.

Many of us have adapted to hiding these feelings behind a socially acceptable façade and a trained response of “I’m good” when asked how we’re doing. But hiding our true internal feelings can be like corrosion eating away at a metal pipe.

The destruction is often taking place from the inside and long before the damaging effects are noticeable from the outside. By then, it could be too late. That’s how mental health struggles can severely impact an otherwise healthy appearing human being.

Dentists and Mental Health

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Many people are surprised to learn that dentists unfortunately suffer from bouts of mental health illness, and some studies have suggested they may face higher rates of suicide than other white-collar professions in the United States.

But the question is why. Our doctors often work in isolation and in tightly confined spaces, and they perform stressful procedures in one of the most delicate parts of the body with no room for error. Furthermore, many patients loathe visiting the dentist’s office, which also impacts the psyche of our doctors.

The pandemic has only exacerbated this issue for dentists who faced economic challenges, time constraints, and other business-related pressures mounting during an uncertain time in our world. According to an ADA survey last summer, 92% of respondents admitted that the COVID-19 pandemic had caused them mental health issues. Yet very few said they were comfortable seeking help for themselves or their staff.

Steps to Take

So if the question is why mental health concerns are quietly taking a toll on dentistry, the answer includes simple solutions that we need to be brave enough to execute.

First, we must continue to raise awareness about mental health illness. Make sure that people recognize when they are suffering and can get the assistance they need without being judged negatively. Model this behavior by talking about your feelings with your staff, family, friends, or professional counselors. Remember that your coworkers or loved ones could be suffering in their own shadows from similar feelings, so lifting the veil by openly sharing and conversing can be encouraging and comforting.

Second, we must erase the stigma attached to mental health illness. Somehow in our society, we have come to associate reaching out for help as a sign of personal weakness. This issue can be heightened for dentists and other healthcare professionals whose job it is to take care of people but to never become the patient themselves. Resources and assistance must be available and accessible and not viewed as a threat to someone’s reputation, career, or livelihood.

Third, if you suspect you are suffering from mental health illness, get help immediately. I cannot stress this enough. No one should be forced to weigh outside concerns against getting the inner help they need. Most employers, including North American Dental Group, have resources available for team members to gain access to resources that can help. And, if you personally do not suffer from mental health ailments, then work to be an empathic hand of support for those of us who do.

It is time to acknowledge our feelings, eliminate the stigma, and get the help we need now.

Mr. Cooper founded Dental Express Practice Management in 2008 and then cofounded North American Dental Group with Dr. Andrew Matta in 2010. He is the father of six children and resides in Florida with his wife Melissa. He is also passionate and active in the mental health and recovery community and has served on several nonprofit boards in support of addiction and recovery services for the underprivileged and underserved population. He is an avid learner and supporter of advancing organizational culture through leadership development programs and servant leadership. He is also the cofounder of Smile with Heart, a 501c3 nonprofit foundation dedicated to advancing the oral health and education of children and pregnant women around the world.   

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