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Dental students face a heavy workload, feelings of isolation and entry into a profession that’s struggling under the weight of a mental health crisis. That’s why it’s so important to establish the foundations of wellness in your university years. By Shane Conroy
The dental profession is facing a mental health and wellness crisis. A 2021 survey of close to 1500 Australian dental practitioners revealed that almost one in three surveyed participants reported experiencing moderate to severe psychological distress, one in four were likely to be experiencing burnout, and one in six had suicidal thoughts during the preceding year.
And the situation seems to get worse for younger practitioners. The survey also found that participating practitioners aged under 30 were more than twice as likely to have had thoughts of suicide in the previous 12 months than older practitioners.
Researchers concluded that the survey results “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”.
Feeling the pressure
Sanika Shorey, president of the Australian Dental Students’ Association (ADSA) and fourth year dental student at La Trobe University, says statistics like these can be frightening for dental students who are already dealing with the pressures of university life.
“Making the transition from high school to university can be daunting in itself,” she says. “In first year, it really hits you how complex dentistry is and the huge volume of theory you need to learn. Then add all the lab sessions and practical skills you need to get to grips with and it can feel overwhelming.”
Shorey says that the academic pressure really builds in third year, and students are expected to take another big leap into placement during their fourth and fifth years. “Third year is notorious for being the toughest year of our degree. It’s a time when we’re really trying to make all these connections between the theory and practical skills we’ve learned. And at the end of the year, we’re assessed in a one-hour interview that can be very stressful.”
For some students, placement can come with more feelings of anxiety and isolation. It can mean spending months in an unfamiliar rural location with limited support. “I moved to Mildura in February with a group of eight dental students for six months. Living in a rural community was a big change for someone like me who grew up in the city, and our little group relied heavily on each other for support.”
Identifying the issues
Most universities are sensitive to the stress load on students, and provide support services such as on-campus counselors and mental health support phone lines. However, in Shorey’s experience, university mental health support services have at times been perceived as inadequate.
“As a dental student, I feel like I have most definitely been made aware of the support services that are available to me,” she says. “However, I often hear on the grapevine that support services can be overwhelmed and under-resourced. There’s a perception that there are long wait times, which I think may turn people off.”
Dental students may also be more vulnerable to feelings of isolation than other university students. Shorey explains that many dental students are not just under a heavy workload, but also may feel separation from their peers in other fields of study.
“I think sometimes we can get lost because dental schools tend to be run a little bit separately from the university. Our calendars are run differently, we have exams at different times, and we go away on long placements, so we may not be on the same schedule as other students. I think this can make social engagement with other students more challenging for some dental students.”
Building supportive networks
That’s why ADSA focuses on supporting opportunities for social engagement. “One way we do that is through our R U OK? Day program,” Shorey says. “We have representatives at all Australian universities with dental schools, and they hold pop-up events at their university locations, which are nice reminders for dental students to take a break and look out for each other.”
Shorey’s advice to other dental students is to also seek out opportunities to join and participate in student associations and university societies. She says that’s an excellent way to build wide social networks, particularly for new students who may not know many people.
“It’s really important to have that sense of camaraderie or connection with the people around you. As dental students, we’re going through similar experiences, so we can really support each other. ADSA, for example, has become my little family. And the group of students I’m on placement with have been an incredible support to each other.”
Shorey says alumni can also play a critical role in helping to support dental students. “ADSA runs a mentoring program called Dentist for a Day where we match students with alumni dentists. The idea is that the student shadows the dentist, and then hopefully they can build an ongoing mentoring relationship from there. It’s a daunting world out there, so any words of advice or support from a dentist are really valuable for students.
“If we can start to think about mental health and our general wellbeing as students, hopefully we can take that into the industry with us and become supportive colleagues. The more we can drive towards a positive change, the better it is for all of us.”