A dentist’s perspective on mental health

Nigel Jones gives his insight on the impact of stress on dental health and what dentists can do to help their patients.

The mental health issue raised by COVID

COVID has brought to light the importance of open communication about mental health. We have been encouraged to keep communication going with our own family and friends during lockdown. By socially distanced means of course.

For those who have had to self-isolate, stress about safety has been high. When combined with limited social interaction, the impact of the pandemic on the nation’s mental health is clear.

The ONS reports that more than two thirds of the UK’s adult population felt somewhat or very worried about the impact of the pandemic on their lives.

These are worrying statistics which can have a knock-on effect on physical health as well as mental health.

The link between stress and dental health

Stress is something we all experience at some point in our lives. But it’s not often we acknowledge in public that this can also impact our dental health.

The most common signs of stress tend to be headaches, muscle tension, difficulty concentrating, feeling overwhelmed or worried, being irritable and changes in sleeping and eating habits.

We have a responsibility to spot dental health issues which might signal if someone is experiencing high levels of stress or anxiety. The most common of these is bruxism. This is the grinding of teeth which can cause excessive wear, damaged jaw, pain and headaches.

There are links between stress and an increase in susceptibility to infections. This is the main risk factor in most dental procedures, especially in surgery.

Issues such as periodontitis and aphthous ulcers worsen and healing times increase when a person is under emotional stress.

Dentists’ responsibility as care providers

As dentists, we are likely to see the knock-on effect of this on our patients. Particularly as we begin to welcome them back into our practices.

Reported recovery times may increase, patient stress levels may heighten and the susceptibility to infections of our patients may go up.

Whilst we can spot the signs of stress quite clearly with bruxism, most of us are not mental health specialists. We can’t examine the full mental health of every patient.

However, as care providers, we have a duty to check in. Not just on people’s teeth, but their general wellbeing too.

With continued loneliness through circuit-breakers and social distancing, dentists may be one of the few interactions our most vulnerable have.

Checking in with patients and asking how they are is an important part of identifying potential issues with their dental health. But also for overall patient care too.

Noticing they are perhaps more stressed at their appointment than usual, we can empathetically reassure them that their safety and wellbeing are important to us in these difficult times.

This can help break down some of the distrust and fear that appears to characterise patient interactions in these COVID days. And it makes our professional lives a little less stressful in turn.

Healthy minds make for effective health professionals

With dental teams working longer hours to try and recover lost income and increasing costs, we need to be gentler with ourselves and colleagues. We shouldn’t ignore our own wellbeing.

It is clear that lockdown is impacting on all of our minds; perhaps this is the time for mental and physical reflection. If you are struggling, take steps toward recovery.

We need to be healthy professionals to be effective health professionals.

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