June 13, 2023. By Gabriela Parpia.
As healthcare professionals – physicians, dentists, nurses, pharmacists, physician’s assistants, and more – our goal is to heal. We heal our patients’ bodies and their minds with our work. As a dental student at the Adams School of Dentistry, I am tasked with addressing my patients’ acute, urgent, restorative, definitive, and preventative dental needs. This can range anywhere from diagnosing an acute dental concern to completing veneers to fabricating a denture. In all these instances, my chief objective is to heal by addressing the patient’s needs. And in doing so, I hope to not only heal their body but to also heal their mind – from anxiety, self-consciousness or lack of confidence.
I have been able to appreciate first-hand the impact dental work can have on a patient’s mental health.Through our CAARE Complete Smiles Program, a sustained Albert Schweitzer Fellowship Project, we have been able to provide several underserved patients in the Durham community with free dentures and/or partials. As part of our Fellowship, we administered OHIP-14 surveys assessing a patient’s quality of life before and after receiving this dental treatment. Several of our categories assessed included mental health related questions related to psychological discomfort and social disability. In both regards, the treatment provided improved their oral-health-related quality of life in both categories. Anecdotally, our patients came back to us with improved confidence and stories of them feeling rejuvenated and happier – all thanks to their dentures or partials. This provides some anecdotal evidence that dental treatment can positively impact a patient’s mental health.
It’s an incredibly powerful moment when you realize that your profession has such healing capabilities for those that you serve. However, what about the mental health of those in your profession? We are asked to heal others, but many times the professionals themselves forget about their own healing needs. What results is a toll taken on their physical and mental health. While healthcare schools have made leaps and bounds in regard to providing mental health resources for their students, there is still a stigma surrounding being open and honest about anxiety, depression, and seeking out such mental health resources. There still remains a silent expectation that those providing healthcare should themselves be without needs. Just as our body needs treatment for its aches and pains, so too does our mind.
I challenge my fellow young healthcare professionals to shed these preconceived notions. Look within yourself with openness and honesty. Take a mental inventory, assess your needs and be willing to utilize the resources available. And if there aren’t resources available, don’t be afraid to ask for them. Because, when you are not at 100%, then you cannot perform to your fullest capacity for your patients. Moreover, what I have realized by seeking mental health counseling over the last several years is that not only can I sympathize with the plights of my patients, but I can also empathize with them. While we may not have the exact same struggles, emotions like anxiety, self-conscriousness, fear, and depression are all human emotions. With the utilization of mental health resources, not only can we learn to manage these emotions, but we can also learn to recognize those same emotions in others. Through recognition, we gain understanding, and through understanding, we can better empathize. Ultimately, our ability as healthcare providers to empathize with our patients not only humanizes us, but it unlocks a trust between patient and provider that enables the best healing.