Are We Well? A Reflection on the Health of the Dental Profession
By: Amisha Singh, DDS
It feels like a cliff, a steep and sudden drop off into a fog of melancholy clouds. I have experienced burnout in dentistry, and I never saw it coming, even when I was right on the edge. I thought I was fine. I thought I could manage. I thought I was just busy. But it was a lot more than just the management of daily stress and being overwhelmed. It was a pervasive feeling of sadness and apathy that I just could not shake. It was deep breaths and the brink of sanity in between patients. It was a longing I could not quantify or, at times, even acknowledge. I was losing myself in it.
Burnout is something that is prevalent in our field, regardless of practice modality. The ADA Dentist Health and Well-Being Survey of 2021 stated that 84% of dentists reported feeling burned out at some point in their careers. Burnout is related to depression and anxiety, two other conditions which impact our personal and professional wellness. This same report shows 86% of dentists report moderate to severe occupational stress. Anxiety was the second most prevalent condition noted in this report, impacting 16% of dentists nationally. The Journal of the Canadian Dental Association published an article that stated dentists in North America were at a higher risk for dysthymia, which is defined as “a persistent depressive disorder, mild but long term.” It hit
home when I read this definition: “…mild but long term.” It never stopped me from getting out of bed. I still did good dentistry. I still showed up for my patients and my team. I still functioned, but it was a battle on some days, which got more and more frequent. It started out as a dull rumble and grew steadily to a roar inside of me over time.
So many dentists I know allude to this long-lasting, lingering feeling… some say it resembles sadness, others say it feels more like unrest. For some of us, it is still a rumble. For others, it is deafening. We speak about it in hushed corners during networking events and in small circles of safety among dental friends. I have experienced that my dental peers understand it better than my loved ones. They understand this idea of linking your self-worth to patient outcomes and this drive for perfection which becomes a double-edged sword. There is an unspoken bond we share in the dental community and a part of that bond is understanding the pain and challenges we face. We, as an industry, are getting a lot better about discussing it on national stages and on national platforms. In part, this is likely because this feeling is impacting us in masses. It’s changing our relationships with our profession and beyond that, it is changing our relationship with our lives and loved ones. It is changing our relationship with ourselves.
We are recognizing the exceeding toll that illness is taking on our professional and personal lives. Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General of the US, recently launched a framework for Mental Health and Wellbeing in the Workplace. The World Health Organization moved to change the definition of burnout to better quantify and diagnose it and added it to the ICD-10, International Classification of Diseases Diagnostic Manual. The American Dental Association’s 2021 House of Delegates passed a resolution on wellness which led to the creation of the ADA Wellness Ambassador program, something I am fortunate enough to participate in.
This profession is beautiful, and I consider dentistry to be one of the greatest gifts of my life. I love being a dentist. But I had to listen deeply to my intuition and make some pretty big changes in my life to be able to find a place in dentistry that filled me up and gave me fulfillment, alignment and bliss. I had to move. That is exactly what pain makes us do…. move. Just like the pain which occurs when resting a hand on a hot stove that sends a signal to move the hand before further damage is caused, I needed to listen to my pain to move into a life that better aligned with my purpose, my goals and my intended legacy. I did not do that alone. Mentors, like Dr. Brett Kessler, asked me probing questions that challenged the limiting beliefs I was harboring. I got a coach, Dr. Laura Brenner, who guided me and equipped me to pull myself out of the darkness. I leaned into my social support system to survive and regain my light.
After having been in a dark place, I promised myself I would never let myself get there again. I was vigilant and I worked habits of wellness into my daily life. But, despite all that, I have gotten close, again traversing that cliff in subsequent chapters of my life. I learned I flutter to the edge of that cliff on autopilot, like a moth to a flame, if I am not careful. I tend to work too hard and too long. I tend not to honor my wellness or my boundaries. I stop listening to my mind and my body. Patients automatically come before my own health. I internalize work stress and fail to extricate my self-worth from my clinical outcomes, my productivity and my professional challenges. And in those moments, when I feel like isolating, I remind myself to lean into the love of my community and family. I lean into awareness. I notice the pain and I move intentionally. It takes work but when I pause, notice, and change my
course, I can regain the balance I need to avoid that cliff. It is something I still work on, daily.
If you are feeling pervasively exhausted or depleted, indifferent towards a profession you used to love, or feel like the darkness is gathering around you, know that you are not alone and know that there is support. Alone, we may falter. Together, let us rise.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or a crisis, please reach out immediately to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. These services are free and confidential. For additional resources on wellness, please see cdaonline.org/dentalprofessionals/well-being-programs or www.ada.org/wellness.
Amisha Singh, DDS is a Denver native and loves living in beautiful Colorado. She serves as Director of Diversity and Inclusion Programming at the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine. Dr. Singh is an active member of the American Dental Association, Colorado Dental Association and Metro Denver Dental Society. She was recognized as one of the 2018 Top 10 Under 10 ADA Dentists nationally. In addition, she serves on the CDA House of Delegates, on the ADA Dental Wellbeing Advisory Committee and as co-editor of MDDS’s Articulator magazine. And, is also a blogger and professional speaker who works with IgniteDDS.