Dental professionals are urging struggling colleagues to reach out for support in a bid to break down stigmas surrounding mental health.
Following the suicide of a London-based dentist this week, the topic of mental health is at the forefront of the profession.
Dr Mahrukh Khwaja – a dentist and emotional resilience coach based in Kent – believes a change needs to happen.
‘As a dental community, we need to take the initiative to create safe spaces to talk about emotions and thoughts and share our vulnerabilities in the first instance,’ she said.
‘To be human. To take down the facade and just relate to others with empathy. That’s the missing link. This requires all of us to make an effort to check in with our team and talk about our own emotions so others know its ok to open up in the first place.
‘We need training in this. A passive “call me if you need me” just does not work.’
Prevention is key
She added: ‘Mental health and well-being education must be included in the undergraduate and postgraduate curriculum and in the conference agenda.
‘Although there is resistance, I am optimistic that the future of dentistry will include supporting its members through training across the board.
‘I have been actively campaigning for this for the last two years and I’m happy to see small but definite progress here.’
Dr Khwaja will host an event – ‘Humanising Dentistry’ – on Sunday 21 June at 7pm over Zoom where a number of dental figures will discuss their personal mental health stories in an effort to open up the conversation around emotions and thoughts.
At the heart of the event is a fundraising initiative. All cash raised will be donated to Confidental, a helpline aimed at providing emotional support for distressed dental professionals.
To get involved with Sunday’s event, click here.
Importance of talking
Over the years, a number of helplines, initiatives and support groups have emerged, specifically aimed at helping dental professionals.
One of these is Mental Dental – dentists in crisis, an online support group. Set up in 2017, the Facebook group is a safe space where dentists are encouraged to speak out and seek support from colleagues.
Lauren Harrhy, who owns a dental practice in Pontypool, Wales, is the group’s founder.
‘In 2015, I had a breakdown – I was suffering with post-natal depression,’ she said.
‘After I had my third child, I was spending more and more time on Facebook (although I hate to admit it). I could see lots of people had and have similar issues.
‘For example, I saw someone had written they pull their car over every day on the way to work to have a cry. And I realised that we need to talk about this.
‘Soon after there was a suicide within the profession that was subject to a GDC investigation. So from the beginning this is something that’s been at the back of my mind.’
Members of the group can post as themselves or anonymously – whatever they feel more comfortable with.
Lauren said: ‘I set up the group as a way for dentists to discuss things openly. It’s mainly for UK dentists as they have their own unique problems surround the UDA system, for example.
‘A lot want to be able to post anonymously and one of the admin team will post these on their behalf. There’s a code of conduct and none of us will tell each other who it is. But people do message us all the time. It’s just about getting out everything that’s in your head.’
Lauren, along with other admin members, have received numerous messages over the years thanking the group for its life-saving support. She fears the current climate will see an increase in the number of dentists who are struggling.
‘I’ve received several messages from people who have said they were feeling suicidal and that the group actually helped to save their life,’ she said.
‘It’s first and foremost a support group – not advice. It’s been pretty busy during this time.
‘I think it’s really polarised the profession in many ways and I think we are about to see a very difficult year for dentistry. This will especially be the case as financial support starts to wane as the year goes on.’
Pressures on practices
Another key support tool is Confidental.
Bhavin Dedhia and Keith Hayes are both trustees of the organisation and said call handlers have been busier during the pandemic period.
‘Confidental has received more calls recently. Typically there are one or two calls most days. The main concerns are around safety in going back to work,’ they said.
‘There is also the fear of investigation by regulators if it is suspected that dentists have not correctly followed the constantly changing guidance from a variety of sources – some expert and some not.
‘Additionally, this is compounded by the pressures placed upon practice owners wanting to offer their patients a safe and available service, and the fact that dentists do not feel supported financially to have confidence that they can stay in business.’
Additionally, they believe recent circumstances add to the urgent necessity of addressing mental health pressures in dentistry.
‘There is a lot of uncertainty and when you are feeling isolated, it is valuable to know that you are not alone and can talk about your worries to another person who is likely to understand your feelings,’ they add.
‘Most of the problems and anxieties experienced by dentists are not unique. Confidental was set up to be there for all dentists 24/7.
‘As a profession, dentists are used to working in an isolated environment where their close contact throughout the day is a nurse. For some that nurse might be a different person each day.
‘We are trained to be independent thinkers and professionals that “fix troubles”. We forget to admit to ourselves if there is trouble that we are unable to fix. For those “troubles” or that self-inflicted stigma, Confidental exists to provide the anonymised listening from a peer.
‘The recent tragic suicide and the COVID-19 pandemic has concentrated many of the issue’s dentistry was already facing.
‘This also emphasises that we must look urgently at the need to address the emotional wellbeing and mental health of our profession.’
Visit Confidental at www.confidental-helpline.org
To donate, visit www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/humanisingdentistry