4 ways to help your dental colleagues battle depression and mental illness

October 8, 2013
Kevin Henry

Issue 10

When news broke last week that Miriam Carey, a dental hygienist from Connecticut, had rammed her car into barriers at the White House and then led police on a mad chase that ended with her death near the United States Capitol, many wondered a simple question: “Why?”

When news broke last week that Miriam Carey, a dental hygienist from Connecticut, had rammed her car into barriers at the White House and then led police on a mad chase that ended with her death near the United States Capitol, many wondered a simple question: “Why?”

Relatives later revealed that Carey had been battling depression. While no one will ever know for sure the motives behind Carey’s driving on that fateful day in Washington, D.C., the question of what role mental illness played in the spree has been debated throughout national media.

I sat down with Gregory A. Shinn, MSW, the associate director of the Mental Health Association in Tulsa, to ask him what dentists and dental team members could do to recognize various forms of mental illness in their colleagues and then help them in their battle. Here are his four tips.

1. Recognize the stigma associated with mental illness

Shinn says that many people don’t seek help for problems because of the negative connotations associated with mental illness. However, he believes it should be viewed in the same way as heart disease or diabetes.

“With any illness, there is an ongoing plan that should be followed,” Shinn said. “If someone who has diabetes doesn’t follow a diet, their blood sugar is going to increase and there could be problems. The same is true for someone with mental illness. Like other illnesses, it is manageable but it must be actively managed.”

2. Be proactive

Shinn believes all workplaces, including dental practices, can set up a wellness strategy for their employees and focus on preventing problems before they occur.

“Set up lunch-and-learns with not only dental manufacturers, but also community experts who can talk about stress and all forms of health,” Shinn said. “Check out the benefits of offering an Employee Assistance Program. Work exercise into the day if possible. Set up walking times at lunch to get out of the practice for a little bit. Encourage open dialogue. The more in touch colleagues are with other colleagues, the more likely they are to hear when something is really bothering their coworker and friend.

Also, set up wellness checks for your entire practice. This not only includes cholesterol screening and blood pressure checks, but also counselors who can talk about dealing with stress.”

3. Know the signs

Shinn knows working in a dental practice can lead to some stressful situations. However, there are some other signs of depression and mental illness that manifest themselves outside of just a normal stressful day.

“Be on the lookout for a loss of productivity at work. There is a high correlation between that and mental illness,” Shinn said. “There are more work days lost from serious mental disorders in the United States than anything else. Also look for irritability and a loss of interest in normal activities. If you know someone who has always bowled on Friday nights or loves talking about their grandkids and they suddenly aren’t doing that any more, it could be a sign.”

4. Have resources available

Again, the key is being proactive. Know what needs to be done before it needs to be done.

“All dental practices should know the emergency response numbers in their communities. This isn’t 911, but rather the names and numbers of mental health clinics that can be called,” Shinn said. “These numbers should be posted throughout the office. Also, many urban areas have a great service available to them by dialing 211. It’s a free, confidential call that can connect people with the resources they need.”