Dentistry is difficult. Period. From the clinical aspect to the practice management piece to finding a balance with it all, dentistry can be extremely challenging and rewarding at the same time.
Sound familiar? If it doesn’t then you may not have practiced long enough yet! Our work can be extraordinarily stressful.
At a recent dental meeting, I took some great courses along with seeing and speaking to a lot of dental professionals about aspects of cosmetic dentistry, practice management, treatment planning, continuing education courses, material selection and just about anything else you can think of when it comes to clinical dentistry and practice management.
For those of you who have committed to CE, you know exactly what I’m talking about. In fact, many times, it is during these times outside the classroom when magical conversations occur and shape the beginning of great professional relationships. Over time, I have been incredibly blessed to have been involved with so many great organizations and met and grown to know so many talented clinicians who have shared their expertise and helped me in so many ways.
It is this time of sharing that as dental professionals, we realize we are struggling with the same issues – everything from technical dentistry to practice management. At this recent meeting, I spoke to a fellow dental professional – who I do not know very well, but had spoken to on other occasions – about the impact that dentistry has on one’s mental health and how it can really take a toll on you mentally.
As part of Mental Health Awareness Month this May, it’s time for us as a profession to get “real” about the struggles of real-world dentists. Hence, this is the beginning of a journey for me to start a conversation about a topic that has impacted me, and to help others cope.
Mental health realities in dentistry
Unfortunately, mental health today is discussed by some people, but many still feel ashamed or experience some level of guilt when they attempt to discuss common life struggles. When it comes to being a dental professional, including everyone in the office, we feel like we have to be better than the rest of the world or have it all together because we are supposed to provide for others and you can’t do that if you can’t “keep it together” yourself.
When you begin to feel like maybe there is something wrong with your feelings, and that you are struggling in both life and dentistry, you may wonder, is this normal? Like so many other people, we start looking for validation.
All you need to do is look on social media platforms everywhere to see friends, including your dental friends, and others living life to the fullest – and you realize maybe your life is not “normal.” Now you feel like something is wrong with you because of the struggles you are having, while your dental friends appear to be living the good life.
Dentistry is a very rewarding career in so many ways. But along with that reward comes sacrifice in ways that many of us may not become aware of until it’s too late or we are suffering from significant mental health issues.
Stress is everywhere in life and dentistry is no different. For dentists, it starts with trying to get into dental school and continues as we get through dental school by meeting or exceeding all of the requirements, study to pass our clinical boards, find a place to work and practice, pay our bills and repay our loans.
We help patients – but what about us?
Let’s face it, we did not go into dentistry because we simply wanted a career. We went into dentistry because we care about people and want to “help” them.
We want to make an impact in their lives. There is nothing better than being able to do that for our patients, right?
Then your patients come in and tell you they “hate being here” but “I don’t hate you, doc,” and how they were traumatized as a patient and they hope you won’t be the next dentist to do so. Finally, the patient is prepared for treatment and we work in a confined, highly sensitive part of the body. We begin the procedure and the patient is “feeling” everything you are doing.
Then things don’t go as planned and we “own” it and, since we care about our work, we feel like a “failure.” So much that our focus becomes more about the times when treatment didn’t go as planned than the times we succeeded. Many of us are faced with added stress due to employees not showing up for work, running the business end of the practice, working in an environment that may be less than ideal, the ton of debt, balancing our time between work and home, and a general lack of sleep. Sound familiar? Well, all of this can wear you down mentally.
Over the years, I have grown to know so many dental professionals and developed great relationships over the years, learning that even nationally recognized clinicians have also struggled mentally in their personal and professional lives. While some people struggle with a rut in their practice, others face depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or the sense of panic that leads to the feeling that it’s time to quit dentistry.
But you know what? Dental professionals are human, too – and we must remind ourselves it is OK to be human!
Working toward mental wellness
First, we need to recognize that we are struggling with issues personally, professionally, or both, and many times we all have some type of emotional issues we are dealing with.
In dentistry, we preach to our patients about the importance of their dental health and coming in for regular checkups. In medicine, patients are told about the importance of their physical health. But when it comes to mental health, we don’t seek treatment or help until we have significant issues.
That would be like telling our patients that they only should show up when something is hurting or broken. So, why don’t people and professionals seek advice on mental health? Well, for one thing, mental illness is still largely stigmatized in society and many people see their personal struggles as a sign of weakness they are not comfortable with openly sharing.
Personally, I think that seeking a “checkup” with a mental health professional is just as important in today’s world as the rest of health care, if not more so. A therapist or counselor can help by listening to and discussing your situation to give you better insight into how to cope.
The first step is to become aware of how you are doing mentally, and to understand it is OK to seek help when you need it.
Jeff Lineberry, D.D.S., F.A.G.D., F.I.C.O.I., is an accredited member of the AACD, member of Spear Visiting Faculty and a contributor to Spear Digest.