Dentistry can be a stressful and challenging profession. Teams like yours can often face depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. For Mental Health Awareness Month this May, take some time to get a closer look at why many dentists and their staff face mental health problems and what you can do to improve overall well-being in your office.

Dentistry and mental health

The percent of dentists diagnosed with anxiety more than tripled in 2021 compared to 2003, according to the 2021 Dentist Health and Well-Being Survey Report from the American Dental Association (ADA). The ADA also found 13% of the dentists reported that they suffered from depression, while it’s estimated that only 3.8% of the general population is affected.

The challenging, demanding work of a dentist’s office can affect the well-being not just of dentists but of office staff, as well. Dentistry can be an especially stressful profession because dentists and their staff often:

  • Work in isolation in confined, small, sometimes windowless spaces
  • Deal with time constraints, economic challenges and other business-related pressures, many of which have only worsened with the advent of COVID-19
  • Perform stressful procedures on a sensitive part of the body with no room for error
  • Deal with long working hours and a heavy workload
  • Face an unfavorable public perception of dentists and dentistry
  • Work with patients who may loathe or resent visiting the office
  • Provide care for others on a day-to-day basis and may not be as accustomed to caring for themselves
  • Are often high achievers who may view reaching out for help as a sign of weakness or failure

Know the signs

As a dentist, you’re trained to identify oral pathology by clinical evidence, diagnostic testing and a patient’s own account. But identifying mental health problems can be very different. Signs related to mental health issues are most often manifested as behavioral changes or they’re experienced internally by the affected individual in the way he or she thinks and feels.

Common signs and symptoms of someone dealing with depression, anxiety or other common mental health issues include:

  • Behavior that is uncharacteristically sad, irritable, critical, indecisive or disorganized
  • Reduced productivity or frequent absence from work
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and other pleasurable activities
  • Withdrawal from friends, family and other social activities
  • Expressions of negativity or feeling “helpless,” “burned out,” “lost” or “hopeless”
  • Frequent complaints of tiredness, headaches, stomach problems, back pain or other aches and pains
  • Changes in sleep, such as insomnia or oversleeping
  • Changes in weight or diet, such as eating more or less than usual
  • Abuse of alcohol or drugs, including prescription medications

These symptoms may increase in severity and frequency over time. In advanced cases, affected individuals may lose their ability to support the team and function in the office.

What you can do

Raise awareness and reduce the stigma

Make sure you and your staff can talk openly about problems and reach out for help without negative judgment. As an office leader, you can model this behavior by talking openly and honestly about stress and problems you may be experiencing. Remember that your colleagues and staff could be experiencing similar issues, so openly sharing can be comforting and encouraging. If you don’t suffer from mental health problems, work to be empathic and supportive of those who do.

Resources and assistance should be available and accessible, and using them should never threaten someone’s job or reputation. Consider adding an employee assistance program (EAP) to the offered benefits at your practice if you haven’t already.

Take care of your emotional health

Here are some tips for self-care during stressful times:

  • Take care of your body. Try to exercise regularly, eat well-balanced meals and get enough sleep. Limit your alcohol intake and avoid tobacco and other drugs.
  • Connect with others. Share your concerns about how you’re feeling with a friend or family member. It’s important to maintain a strong social support system and to build healthy relationships during difficult times.
  • Take breaks and vacations. Allow yourself time to unwind and engage in activities you enjoy.
  • Seek help. If stress is impacting your life and work, don’t be afraid to seek out help from others when you need it.

Know where to turn for help

The following free resources can help promote mental health in the dental office:

Other mental health resources include:

  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255). Provides 24/7 free, confidential support for people in distress as well as best practices for professionals and resources to aid in prevention and crisis situations.
  • NAMI. The National Alliance on Mental Illness provides advocacy, education, support and public awareness to individuals and families affected by mental illness.  
  • SAMHSA. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that leads public health efforts to reduce the impact of substance abuse and mental illness on America’s communities. Their resources include a helpline at 800-985-5990.

The mind, just like the mouth, requires constant care. Optimal mental health is a crucial part of your practice success and your overall well-being. Don’t neglect mental well-being in your office or feel shame or stigma about needing to reach out for help.