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Surviving dental school: taking care of your health

30 June 2021

When your focus is on caring for your patients day in day out, it can be easy to let your own health issues slip from your priorities. 

Staying well is important for both you and your patients, so it’s really important to get into good habits while you’re at dental school. Not only will this help take care of your own wellbeing, you’ll also avoid putting patients at risk.

The HPCSA ethical rules leave you in no doubt that any impairment because of your health should be reported to the HPCSA. It is therefore clear that you should not try and assess your own health or rely on another student’s or colleague’s assessment as to whether your health condition could pose a risk to patients and colleagues.

It’s important to seek independent and objective advice about your own health. The best place to find this advice is your own doctor from student health services or from the occupational health department at the university if you are worried at all about your health. This includes mental health as well as physical. 

Dentistry is a stressful career, and this can begin at dental school. Good advice for dealing with stress is to get help early and be open about the issues you’re experiencing.

Keeping quiet, or ignoring the problem, can cause things to escalate and lead to more serious issues with your mental health. Many dentists go through issues with depression and anxiety. And while it’s not always widely acknowledged, plenty of clinicians experience drug or alcohol dependency as a result of mental health issues.

Society’s attitude towards mental health is changing, and we’re becoming far more aware and understanding of our need to be open about it. There’s no reason this should be any different for dentists.

Case study

Charlie was a second-year dental student. He had already completed a social sciences degree at UP and had always excelled academically.

Charlie found the first year at dental school very different. He struggled to adapt to the variety of subjects, the more scientific way of approaching his studies and had difficulty making friends.

In the lead-up to the summer exams, he found himself becoming increasingly unhappy and withdrawn. He visited his doctor who diagnosed him with depression and referred him for cognitive behavioural therapy.

As Charlie’s mental health became harder to manage, he began to drink more regularly. This escalated quickly, and his attendance at lectures and tutorials started to drop. His pastoral tutor asked Charlie to meet with him, but he missed several appointments.

Charlie was called to attend a formal interview with the Dean of the dental school. When he arrived there were noticeable signs that Charlie had been drinking that day, which he explained by saying he’d been at a bar with friends.

As a result of ongoing concerns, formal disciplinary procedures were instigated at the dental school. With assistance from Dental Protection he was able to show that his poor attendance and perceived attitude problems related to his underlying health issue. Charlie acknowledged that he was struggling with depression and alcohol use, and the dental school allowed him to take a break from his studies and provided him with help and support through occupational health.

Learning points

• Health issues can arise at any time in your dental career, from the early days at university to the final years of clinical work as you look forwards to retirement. It is always important to seek help, the sooner the better before it becomes a disciplinary concern.

• Sometimes things can get out of hand, and occasionally formal investigations or procedures will be the first occasion that health issues come to light. Even at this stage, as the above scenario shows, getting appropriate advice and support can help to get your health and career back on track.

If you need advice or support on any of the issues raised in this post our dedicated student support and advice line is here for you on +27 11 484 5288.
Read about how a clinic closing on two occasions during the COVID-19 pandemic added additional pressure on a dentist at an already difficult time. 
Discover more in the 'Surviving dental school' series here