Dental practitioners face rising burden of mental health conditions, study says

Dental practitioners experience a significant burden of mental health conditions, with one in six practitioners reporting thoughts of suicide in the past year, a new survey of close to 1500 Australian practitioners has found.

A profile view of a dental nurse wearing a face mask stands in a pensive Dental practitioners were found to have a high burden of mental health concerns, including psychological distress and burnout.

Published in Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology, the study surveyed dentists, dental specialists, oral health therapists, dental therapists, dental hygienists and dental prosthetists between October and December 2021.

University of Melbourne Associate Professor Matt Hopcraft, the lead researcher on the study, said the findings raise important ‘red flags’ for the dental profession and highlighted the need to monitor dental practitioners' mental health, and extend monitoring to dental practitioner students given the alarming rate of reported distress among younger practitioners.

“The rate of suicidal ideation among this group of dental practitioners is much higher than we would expect to see in the Australian population, and certainly higher than that reported in the Beyond Blue study of Australian doctors,” Professor Hopcraft said.

Dental practitioners were found to have a high burden of mental health concerns, with close to one-third reporting experiencing moderate to severe psychological distress, and about one in four were found likely to be experiencing burnout.

Dentistry is a stressful profession due to highly demanding technical skills and the imperative of striving for perfection. Previous research has highlighted high levels of professional stress due to the demands of meeting patients’ expectations, anxious, challenging or dissatisfied patients, time and scheduling pressures, and professional isolation from colleagues.

Other factors contributing to stress experienced by dental practitioners include: fear of litigation, patient complaints, pressures associated with running a small business, and negative public perceptions of dentists.

“Suicidal ideation was strongly associated with higher levels of depression and psychological distress, but not clearly associated with burnout. We found that 11.4 per cent of dental practitioners had a current diagnosis of depression, higher than what we would expect to see in the Australian population,” Associate Professor Hopcraft said.

“There is often a stigma associated with mental health conditions, and this seems to be magnified in health professionals. Our research is helping to shine a light on problems that are all too common in the profession. It is vital that we reduce this stigma through advocacy and education to ensure practitioners can seek the appropriate mental health support they need. Improving mental health of dental practitioners is important for their wellbeing, patient outcomes and public health.”

Key findings of the study:

  • 17.6% reported thoughts of taking their own life in the preceding 12 months;
  • 31.4% reported thoughts of taking their own life prior to the preceding 12 months;
  • 5.6% reported ever having made an attempt to take their own life;
  • 32% were rated as having moderate-severe psychological distress;
  • 59.4% were rated as having minor-severe non-psychotic psychiatric morbidity;
  • 24.8% were classified as likely to be experiencing burnout;
  • 11.5% reported a current diagnosis of depression
  • 12.9% reported a current diagnosis of anxiety disorder
  • Younger practitioners (<30 years) were more than twice as likely to have had thoughts of suicide in the previous 12 months than older practitioners (61+ years);
  • Male dental practitioners were twice as likely as females to have had thoughts of suicide in the previous 12 months.

The study was undertaken by researchers from the University of Melbourne, the University of Queensland, the University of New South Wales and the eviDent Foundation.

If you or anyone you know needs help or support, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue.

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Annie Rahilly

+61 432 758 734