Depression Among Dentists, A Silent Epidemic

October 10, 2016
Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN

Dentists, and others with high-stress job, can be particularly susceptible to depression.

Depression isn’t just a case of the blues, and it’s not possible to simply “snap out of it.”

Depression

, otherwise known as major depressive disorder, is a mood disorder characterized by persistent feelings of sadness and a loss of interest in things once found pleasurable. There are many

symptoms

that could indicate a problem with depression, including but not limited to:

Changes in appetite

Anxiety, agitation, and restlessness

Angry outbursts, irritability, or frequent frustration

Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions, or remembering things

Unexplained physical problems, like backaches or headaches

Frequent or recurrent thoughts of death or suicidal thoughts

Depression isn’t just a case of the blues, and it’s not possible to simply “snap out of it.” Many people that are affected by depression have symptoms that are severe enough to cause noticeable problems in day-to-day activities. In fact, depression is a condition that might take extended treatment under the guidance of a mental health professional. What’s important is that treatment is sought before the condition progresses too far.

Why Are Dentists Prone to Depression?

Many factors influence whether a person develops depression in their lifetime. The exact cause of depression isn’t known, but it’s currently thought that people with the disorder have biological differences in the structure and chemistry of their brains compared to individuals that are not depressed. Hormones are also thought to play a role in the development of depression. It could be that depression is an inherited condition — research indicates that it’s more common in people who also have relatives that were diagnosed with the condition, suggesting that certain genes might be involved.

Some people are exposed to more external influences that make the possibility of having the disorder more likely. For dentists, the nature of the profession could be a significant factor in the development of depression. Dentistry is a high-stress profession — the demands of dentistry start in dental school, and once a dentist enters clinical practice, they find that they’re exposed to a greater number and variety of stressors than ever before.

One study summarized in the Journal of the American Dental Association

examined more than 3,500 dentists. Thirty-eight percent reported feeling worried or anxious constantly or frequently. In the same study, 34% of respondents said they always or frequently felt physically or emotionally exhausted, and 26% reported continuous or frequent backaches and headaches.

Stress-related problems, like depression, result from both the work environment and what is thought to be the typical personality type of people entering the dental profession. Isolation, confinement to small, usually windowless spaces, and continuous intricate, meticulous work are all factors that might contribute to the development of depression. There is usually tremendous economic pressure on dentists, with many practitioners facing huge loans for both school and the cost of opening a practice.

Some institutions theorize

that dentists also have a tendency toward perfectionism driven personalities, which can lead to frequent disappointment both in life and in practice regardless of the effort to succeed.

What Can Dentists Do If They Think They Are Depressed?

First, it’s important to realize that there is no shame in admitting you might need help. Depression is not a weakness. It is an indiscriminate condition, affecting people from all walks of life.

There are multiple resources available to help treat depression, but the first step is typically an evaluation by a physician to rule out any physical causes for your condition. Provided there is no evidence of any physical problems, your physician will refer you to a mental health provider for further treatment.

The treatment path will be discussed and will depend on the severity of your symptoms and goals for treatment. In cases of more mild depression, it might be possible to address the symptoms and stop the progression of the condition through frequent, in-depth psychotherapy alone.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy

is used to help replace negative thoughts and unproductive thought patterns, and treatment focuses on taking specific steps toward overcoming depression.

If depression is more severe, an antidepressant medication might be prescribed. Although recent research indicates that

dentists might not be as responsive to these medications

when taken alone, they might still be useful in dealing with severe symptoms for brief periods of time when coupled with other forms of treatment, like psychotherapy.

Other steps to addressing depression

include joining support groups, practicing relaxation techniques, meditation, talking with friends and family about your condition, and getting regular exercise. While you probably won’t notice instantaneous change — treatment for depression takes time to work – you should notice a reduction in your depressive symptoms over time. Try to set realistic goals for treatment, and let your friends and loved ones help you. Just as you help your patients maintain their healthy smiles, it’s important to let trained professionals, family and friends help you maintain and improve your own mental health.

RELATED: For more on mental health awareness:

  • Addressing Suicidal Tendencies in the Healthcare Population

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