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

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mental health of dental practitioners
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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.

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,” A/Prof 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 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,” A/Prof Hopcraft said.

“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.”

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.

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