Let’s talk about mental health in dentistry

14 May, 2021 by John Cullinane

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. Like others, we’re reflecting on what we can do to encourage conversations about mental health and wellbeing and minimise the impact of the work that we do. John Cullinane, Executive Director, Fitness to Practise, explains more. 

Over the last year we’ve probably thought more about our mental health and wellbeing than ever before. The effects of the pandemic have been far and wide and will probably never be fully quantified, but the stress, anxiety and isolation experienced by us all has no doubt taken its toll.

Mental Health Awareness Week gives us a welcome impetus to reflect on our mental health, and to think about what we can do differently to ensure we’re having open and frank conversations about mental health in dentistry. And a big step forward was taken this week, with the launch of the Mental Health Wellness in Dentistry Framework, providing practical support on how you can make these conversations happen in your dental team.

We’ve been reflecting on our role and what steps we can take to minimise the mental health stressors that are often experienced by those who are notified that a concern has been raised with us. We know that this can be worrying, and we continue to look for ways to make it less so.

Recently we got in touch with registrant on a Friday morning to ask them to confirm their contact details. The registrant did exactly the right thing and immediately responded to our request. That confirmation led to us disclosing the details of a concern later that day. Not normally a problem, this is our process, but it happened late on a Friday afternoon.

It was rightly pointed out that notifying people of a concern late on a Friday afternoon means they are less likely to be able to immediately access any advice or support they may need. Clearly not ideal, so we will not do this in future unless we absolutely need to e.g. where there is a significant public protection or public interest matter, and a need to give due notice of an interim order hearing.

We will also continue to look for ways to ensure that dental professionals have access to support. At the moment we provide links to organisations that can help and we work closely with them to improve the support offered. Our notification letters have been updated to highlight the support provided, and we are working on new initiatives, which we hope will widen the types of support available.

But we also need to recognise that others are normally in a better position to support those who are the subject to fitness to practise investigations, and we strongly advise dental professionals to speak to their indemnifier, as soon as possible, if they receive notification of a concern. 

Fitness to practise investigations are a vital part of the public protection system - but we can always improve and look to minimise the effects on registrants’ mental health when we do need to investigate. For our part we will be open about concerns and as responsive and supportive as possible. 

We will not be able to fix everything immediately - but small changes can have a big impact. We will learn from others and from our mistakes, and will work to reduce stress and anxiety wherever we can.  And to be clear, this does not only apply to our contact with dental professionals about fitness to practise matters – but all parties involved. 

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