Fortunately, there has been an increase in awareness in society around mental health. A lot of this work is to tackle the stigma associated with mental health problems and to enable and encourage people to seek help, without fear of judgement or embarrassment. Mental health issues are prevalent - in England, and at any given time, 1 in 6 working-age adults have symptoms associated with mental ill health.
As a dentist, I know only too well that ours is a stressful profession – seeing multiple patients a day (some of whom don’t want to be there) and managing their oral health as well as their expectations, has on occasion made my work both physically and emotionally exhausting. The prevalence of mental health issues in dentistry is not fully known but dentists consistently self-report high levels of stress. Healthcare professionals and students are also reluctant to seek help for mental health problems.
A recent survey by the DDU showed that mental health problems are likely to have been exacerbated by the changes and uncertainty that COVID-19 has caused. 68% of dental professionals surveyed felt that their stress and anxiety levels had increased since the pandemic. There have been some great webinars discussing wellbeing during COVID-19 from the BDA, ProDental CPD and FGDP(UK), and the deans of the dental faculties of the Royal Colleges, which I would recommend watching.
Why should we be interested in wellbeing?
I believe we should be interested in the wellbeing of the dental team because stress and anxiety (from whatever source) are harmful for dental professionals and are unlikely to lead to the best outcomes for patients. Previous evidence in other healthcare sectors shows that staff wellbeing is linked directly to patient experience of care - this suggests that by tackling the causes of poor mental health and wellbeing in the dental professions, practitioners will be able to deliver better quality patient care with increased levels of patient satisfaction.
At the GDC we understand that regulation itself can contribute to stress and anxiety. We know that for some dental professionals, there is a pre-existing fear of the GDC, even though the vast majority have not had any fitness to practice concerns raised with us. This fear appears to be also present amongst newly qualified dental professionals. These reported levels of anxiety are not beneficial to dental professionals or patients, and we want to try and address this through our upstream activities, engagement, and by ensuring that our processes are fair, proportionate and transparent in order to build trust with dental professionals.
We know that dental professionals subject to a fitness to practise investigation are more likely to experience stress and anxiety which can lead to poorer mental wellbeing. Some of those who took part in focus groups, as part of our 2019 Dental Professional Survey, said that they were concerned about the mental health of dental professionals involved in fitness to practise cases. Participants also thought that we should be doing more to support the mental health of dental professionals in general.
We are keen to understand the challenges faced by dental professionals that lead to poor mental health and wellbeing within dentistry. Therefore, we have commissioned a rapid evidence assessment in this area, and we hope that this will help us understand the challenges that dentists face in their professional lives, which can contribute to poor mental health, and whether there are any interventions to help improve wellbeing in dentistry. We understand that we cannot ‘solve’ mental health issues, but we can try to minimise some of the burden and stress we place on dental professionals.
Finally, I believe that to be able to care for your patients you need to be able to care for yourself, so please seek out help if you need it - there are lots of amazing people and organisations offering support services. It might be also be helpful to undertake a course in mental health and wellbeing, so you notice signs of distress in your colleagues and in your patients.
Some resources that may be helpful:
- Support for registrants listed on the GDC website
- Zero Suicide Alliance - Training to help better understand the signs to look out for and the skills required to approach someone who is struggling
- NHS Employers: Keep Having a Good Day – A tool to help you think about your emotional health
- Every mind matters – Advice and tips to look after your mental health and wellbeing
- Confidental helpline – Emotional first aid for dentists in distress
- Public Health England COVID-19 Psychological First Aid - Psychological first aid training and help people with different needs to cope with the emotional impact of COVID-19
- Seek help from your professional bodies – e.g. the BDA have a Wellbeing Portal