Breaking Through: The Future of Mental Wellness in Dentistry

Who cares about mental wellness? I do, and so should you.

According to the Global Wellness Institute, mental wellness is an internal resource that helps us think, feel, connect, and function. It is an active process that helps us to build resilience, grow, and flourish.

Flourishing in the pandemic has not been easy. For some, impossible. Our collective experience has magnified the need to strive toward wholeness and fight the dualism of thought that somehow the mind and body are separate.

This is our opportunity to slow things down and give more consideration to how we manager our self-care as dental professionals. It is our time to consider how we function in our practices and how we show up as leaders, particularly given our responsibility as healers for our patients.

Earlier this year, Ken Duckworth, chief medical officer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, told the Harvard Gazette that data shows “about one in five Americans suffered from some sort of mental illness before the (COVID-19) pandemic, and that number is now two in five.”

Now more than ever, we have an opportunity to engage in self-care, which is defined as the practice of taking an active role in protecting one's own well-being and happiness, especially during periods of stress.

In the words of Viktor Frankl, the noted Holocaust survivor and the author of “Man's Search for Meaning:”

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”

Breaking Through: The Future of Mental Wellness in Dentistry
Watch for Resident Faculty presentations in Spear Digest and elsewhere on Spear Online related to mental wellness in dentistry. Please join us for an open and active discussion about the realities of mental health in the dental community, so that more practice teams can find the peace they need to provide patients with the care they deserve.

Dental mental wellness: a real issue or just ‘woo-woo?'

If you are like me, when I first was looking into wellness initiatives, many seemed flimsy or nebulous — also known as “woo-woo.”

Why? There are countless spiritual gurus, therapeutic disciplines, websites, mobile apps, fee-for-service businesses, and free resources to help take away stress and anxiety. But in the end, we are left to foster change in our own lives.

If we do not feel solid, and lack comfort in being ourselves, how can we help our patients when they present with symptoms of something potentially serious? If our patients are stressed, depressed, or confused about their treatment, how can you and your team genuinely impact their overall health?

It makes sense why we as a dental community feel so scrutinized. Success vs. failure is often measured in mere millimeters.

We share the common experience that is dental school which did a stupendous job of eliminating our self-esteem. Many of us had an instructor bearing down on us to remind is that we're just one-tenth of a millimeter off, which makes it a complete and utter failure, rather than a near-miss.

As a group, we as dentists “are prone to professional burnout, anxiety disorders and clinical depression, owing to the nature of clinical practice and the personality traits common among those who decide to pursue careers in dentistry.”

Figure 1

The practice of gratitude to combat mental distress in dentistry

Just because our professional reality caries greater potential for serious mental unrest does not mean that all is lost and that you are not in control.

Far from it. But finding peace is far from an easy task, especially in 2021.

There is a large body of research supporting the pursuit of self-care. Whether you choose to engage in gratitude, meditation, journaling, exercise, intellectual pursuits outside of dentistry, or spiritual reverence — the choice is yours as to how you balance mind and body, but also your work life with the rest of your busy life.

“There are countless spiritual gurus, therapeutic disciplines, websites, mobile apps, fee-for-service businesses, and free resources to help take away stress and anxiety. But in the end, we are left to foster change in our own lives.”

As the old phrase goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and one of the easiest first steps to take is to begin the practice of gratitude.

According to a report from the Harvard Health Publishing, “researchers tested the impact of various positive psychology interventions on 411 people, each compared with a control assignment of writing about early memories.”

“When their week's assignment was to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for his or her kindness,” the article noted, “participants immediately exhibited a huge increase in happiness scores. This impact was greater than that from any other intervention, with benefits lasting for a month.”

How can you practice gratitude? There are no rules. You can express your gratitude by writing a note or e-mail every day to someone, by writing three things you are grateful for every day, by counting your blessings, or through the simple daily contemplation of the things you are grateful for.

Despite the pandemic and the challenges we continue to face, dentists have a lot to be grateful for and continue to be ranked as one of the top jobs in the U.S.

We look forward to sharing more insights with you in the coming months through our “Breaking Through” mental wellness series, which we devised to help the dental community navigate the mental distress and suffering you or your practice team may be facing.

Please join me, my fellow Spear Resident Faculty, and the rest of our fellow dentists in the Spear community to address our shared challenges in mental wellness in our practices. It's our shared responsibility to look out for ourselves and the teammates we rely upon every day.

We spend most of our time in practice, but that does not give us the excuse to neglect the other areas of our lives that lead to the wellness and stability that enable us to care for the patients who look to us for help.

Martin Mendelson, D.D.S., C.P.C., E.L.I.-M.P., is a member of Spear Resident Faculty.


  2. J Am Dent Assoc. 2004 Jun;135(6):788-94. doi: 10.14219/jada.archive.2004.0279.


Commenter's Profile Image Ricardo M.
May 5th, 2021
Great article! Congrats Martin !!!
Commenter's Profile Image Kelly H.
May 6th, 2021
Thanks for the information Martin. This is on point for this time and place we seem to find ourselves in. I'm very much looking forward to the information coming out. Do you have a way to "subscribe" to this series so that we don't miss anything? I know I have personally been working on my own well being in hopes of improving the energy or gravitas that I bring to the office each day. One way I do this is my own personal mantra of "Compassionate Authority" that I hope to bring to interactions with patients and staff. Anyway, great job and I look forward to seeing more, KMH
Commenter's Profile Image Josh R.
May 17th, 2021
Very well done Martin. Its amazing what gratitude can do for both the office and home atmosphere. I love seeing faces light up when I express gratitude, it becomes infectious. Looking forward to the rest of the series.
Commenter's Profile Image Monica W.
May 19th, 2021
Thank you for sharing! It reminded me of a class I took online last year called "The Science of Well-being" taught by Yale professor Dr. Laurie Santos. In one of our assignments we had to write a gratitude letter to someone of influence and hand deliver it to them. It was very therapeutic to spend the time writing down why this person was so important to me and to actually give them the letter full of my feelings and appreciation. Ever since then I have written in a gratitude journal everyday to practice the art of well-being. It's true that it increases your level of happiness!
Commenter's Profile Image Brandon S.
July 31st, 2021
Thank you for these words, we all needed to “hear” them.