Mind the mental health gap

John Townend explores the topic of mental health and mindfulness – what it is, why it is important, how to get started and how to maximise the benefits.

John Townend explores the topic of mental health and mindfulness – what it is, why it is important, how to get started and how to maximise the benefits.

There is rising awareness among the public at large but also specifically within the dental profession that mental health is key to both professional and personal success and wellbeing.

This is an issue that, thankfully, has been gaining traction over several years and perhaps became even more significant during and after the pandemic and the association lockdowns.

After all, in 2017, the British Dental Association (BDA) was on the case, writing: ‘Over the past three decades, a body of research and evidence has emerged which highlights burnout, mental-ill health and work-related stress as an issue within the UK dental profession.

‘Researchers have consulted with dentists and identified sources of burnout and high job stress among dentists (early career dentists, community dentist and general dental practitioners) and have investigated the consequences of high job stress and difficult working conditions for dentists’ wellbeing, particularly their mental health.’

They continued: ‘It is clear from the existing pool of evidence and earlier BDA research in this area that the psychosocial working conditions of both community dentists and GDPs place them at risk of occupational stress. This occupational stress can have negative implications for dentists’ mental health, increasing their risk of emotional distress, anxiety, and alcohol use.’

Then, realising that, of course, 2020 and 2021 clearly changed the trajectory of many people’s lives, research carried out by the General Dental Council (GDC) in 2021 revealed not only that the evidence indicated that mental health issues may arise as early as the undergraduate years but also that, in recent years, dentists’ mental health and wellbeing has deteriorated, with a greater proportion of practitioners exhibiting signs of burnout, suicide ideation and poorer wellbeing.

Mindfulness makes a difference

In the 1960s, golfer Walter Hagen wrote in his autobiography: ‘Don’t hurry. Don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.’ Over the years, this morphed into the well-known idiom, ‘Stop and smell the roses.’

In essence, we need to take the time to appreciate what is going on around us and be present in the moment. In psychological terms, this has been termed ‘mindfulness’, which the NHS describes as, ‘paying attention to what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment.’

Both the mental health charity Mind and the NHS suggest five evidence-based steps to improve your mental health and wellbeing, including mindfulness (visit https://bit.ly/3WFwlMM for further information).

In practical terms, the following might be helpful when beginning your mindfulness journey:

  • Pay attention to the everyday things – notice of your thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, actions, and behaviours
  • Create a regular schedule – for instance, having a walk at the same time every day during which you try to be attentive to what is going in the world around you. Additionally, walking or gentle yoga can help to calm an over-burdened mind
  • Try new things – it can be as simple as sitting in different seat in meetings to help you see the world in a new way
  • Watch out for distracted thoughts – if worries and thoughts tend to creep into your brain when you try to practise mindfulness, bear in mind it isn’t about making them go away but rather acknowledging their presence and acting before reaching crisis point.

Your well-being comes first

This is on a parallel with the aeroplane safety instruction of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others in the event of an emergency.

We all understand why, but it can be challenging to put ourselves first, especially when working in healthcare.

Rather unexpectedly, during the height of the pandemic, Ruby Wax popped up on a live webinar attended by 2,500 dentists to speak about stress coping mechanisms and she put it perfectly: ‘You should fix yourself before you save the world.’

The truth is, if you are not in tip-top condition, your work can’t be either.

Indeed, the GDC expects dental professionals to look after their own health in the interests of providing safe and appropriate care.

As paragraph 9.2.2 of the GDC’s ‘Standards for the dental team’ states: ‘You must not rely on your own assessment of the risk you pose to patients. You should seek occupational health advice or other appropriate advice as soon as possible’

Maximising the benefits

Recognising that dental professionals are very often time poor, I would like to signpost you to an NHS web page called ‘Finding calm amongst the chaos’, which offers several short videos that have been created to provide tools and techniques to help reduce stress, simply and effectively, no matter where you are. You can find it here.

Mindfulness does not offer a quick fix, but it doesn’t need to be complicated and can make a huge difference to how you feel and act on a day-to-day basis, helping to change things for the better and providing a safety net of awareness so that you do not reach crisis point.

At Real Good Dental, we recognise how important an issue this is and are in the process of broadening our wellbeing offerings, starting with organising a Wellness Day led by positive psychologist and practising dentist, Dr Mahrukh Khwaja, to ensure all our practices have access to the support they need.

So, if you are looking for help to achieve and maintain clinical excellence for patients, as well as access to a network of experts to support you at every turn, and many other benefits you probably don’t expect from a corporate, please do get in touch.

Simply visit www.realgooddental.com, email [email protected] or call 0131 374 7825 for further information.

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