How to protect dentists mental health

Lauren Harrhy, the founder of Mental Dental – a Facebook group for dentists in crisis which has over 5,000 members, discusses the level of support available for dentists struggling with mental health. She also offers her thoughts on what professional bodies and dentists themselves can do to protect the profession amid a culture of stress, anxiety and burnout

At present, in dentistry as in the general population, we are seeing an increase in mental health diagnoses. There are precious few resources available to dentists who are struggling. Particularly as they may feel that they can’t admit they have this issue in case their FtP comes into question.

I would love to see the Practitioner Advice and Support Schemes (PASS) schemes up and running again but very few are even active at present. The Dentists’ Health Support Programme, originally set up to help those who misuse drugs and/or alcohol, do have some facilities to help dentists who are really struggling with their mental health and would benefit from having someone ‘walk with’ them.

“I would love to see the Practitioner Advice and Support Schemes (PASS) schemes up and running again but very few are even active at present.”

Obviously, there are the general charities and organisations like Samaritans, Mind or Relate. These are wonderful organisations if your problem isn’t specific to dentistry. Mental Dental has been around since 2017 but I am also working on a project called Confidental with Jeremy Cooper, Keith Hayes and Jen Pinder. This will be a helpline manned by volunteers who are or have been dentists who can sympathise or signpost if required. Like a dental version of Samaritans!

We would also like to see dentists able to access mental health care via occupational health, like GPs are able to do.

In terms of what professional bodies within dentistry could do to help protect dentists, they must recognise that dentists, for the most part, are trying to do the right thing by their patients, staff and colleagues, and that they must also balance that with looking after their families and themselves.

We do not work for free! We are professionals who have trained to a high standard and should expect to be remunerated and respected accordingly.

Of course, those few of us who are performing poorly should be looked at and offered support and there are one or two who may need to be withdrawn from the profession altogether, but the vast majority are doing good work in a caring manner.

“The ‘no win, no fee’ blame culture which has been allowed to perpetuate must be reined in.”

The ‘no win, no fee’ blame culture which has been allowed to perpetuate must be reined in. It is taking away time, money and resources which could be better spent on providing care, as well as crushing our dental professionals and making them scared.

Dentists themselves must do several things:
  1. Learn your limitations: clinically, interpersonally, financially. If you overstretch yourself then you will make mistakes and leave yourself open and vulnerable to a host of problems. Spend within your budget, save some for a rainy day, don’t cheat on your partner (especially not with your nurse and certainly not with a patient!), refer out cases that will cause you hassle or headaches, even if the patient starts peeling off £50 notes from a roll in your surgery.
  2. Realise that we are all different and have a spectrum of abilities. Some of us can use composite like an artist, some of us have the knack of sharing a treatment plan with a patient in a way that the patient can’t believe they didn’t spend the money on this treatment 10 years ago and fully sees the clinician’s vision for their smile, some of us are just mediocre as dentists but our patients like us very much and become like an extended circle of friends that you happen to check for varying levels of dental disease every three -18 months. Not every case you see on Facebook or Instagram is real or reproducible in the clinical situation and no, most dentists can’t afford a high luxe lifestyle. It takes years to get to any decent level of clinical skill too, try to focus on patient management first!
  3. Maintain a good network of supportive colleagues and see them (yes, in the flesh!) regularly. Go to LDC or BDA meetings. Go to courses rather than doing them all online. Have dinner once a month with local dentists in your area or once a year with your mates from dental school. Talk about your issues. This profession can be so lonely and isolating, combine that with the pressures I mentioned previously and is it any wonder we are losing dentists to retirement, career change and suicide?
  4. Be ethical. It may not make you as much money but you’ll surely find peace of mind in knowing that you did your best in any given situation.
  5. Take regular breaks. Holidays, spa days, city breaks, camping, whatever. Just get out of the four walls of your surgery and forget about dentistry for a day or 10. The place won’t burn down without you, which brings me nicely to my next point.
  6. Realise that dentistry isn’t the whole world, it’s only teeth! We care about our patients’ teeth way more than they do in a large majority of cases. Also, realise that you are not the only one with the skill and knowledge to look after your patients, there were dentists before you and there will be dentists after you and patients will very often not even recognise you if they spot you in the supermarket!

Hear more from Lauren about why she set up Mental Dental and her own experiences with mental health here.

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