With almost a fifth of dentists saying they feel suicidal and high levels of stress and anxiety across the profession, many are finding solace in a Facebook group. In just two years, the closed Mental Dental group has amassed over 5,000 members. This in itself says much about the state of the mental health of the profession.
It was set up by Lauren Harrhy, a practising dentist who has battled anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. Below she discusses why she established the group, how it works, her own experience with mental health and her thoughts on the causes of stress and anxiety…
Zoe Close (ZC): What is Mental Dental?
Lauren Harrhy (LH): Mental Dental is a Facebook group which allows dentists to vent about issues which are causing them severe distress and mental anxiety. Other members of the group are able to offer support and be a digital shoulder to cry on. As it is a forum, the advice and opinions posted there must be taken with caution of course, but on the whole we have found that just by sharing the problem most of the people who have posted have felt better.
In the first year it was running we managed to prevent some eight very desperate people from taking their own lives, so they tell us.
Not everyone who contacts the page actually wants to post, some just contact me or one of the admins directly and choose not to share their issues to the page. People are able to post anonymously via me or the admin team, we have a strict code of confidentiality and don’t even share the identities of the anonymous person with each other.
There are a couple of non-dentists in the group, specifically allowed to join because of the different perspectives they bring, but all work within the dental sector, but apart from them it’s GDC-registered dentists working within the UK.
We do not allow intolerance or hate speech and ask members to be kind when commenting on posts because the person asking for advice is vulnerable.
ZC: Why did you feel the need to start such a group?
LH: The final push was the amount of anxiety-ridden posts I was seeing on other online forums. These forums were much larger, more generalised and, frankly, less supportive, for the most part. They were great for clinical or business idea sharing but were quite intimidating to post on if feeling vulnerable.
One day I read a post about a young dentist who said that she has a panic attack before she starts work each day. I recognised those feelings, as I had been there myself and thought ‘enough is enough, we need a support group’. My mother used to run a support group for parents of children with speech and language disorders so I had seen first-hand the power of sharing problems. Often, many other people are having the same issues but nobody is talking about it!
ZC: How has it changed over the time it’s been running?
LH: Well the group has exploded in size! I expected maybe a few hundred people to join but we currently stand at 5.1k members. We also started off with many offers of help, it was a real testament to the strength of feeling around this subject.
These days it’s very rare for someone to post their issue without being anonymous but many people post inspirational memes or helpful articles. There was plenty of negative feeling in the beginning, I think people couldn’t understand it or were suspicious of my motivations. After a short while people started to see the value in just being kind and there for one another.
ZC: Is that popularity, bittersweet in some ways?
LH: It’s such a shame that a group such as this needs to exist and it’s disappointing that so many in our profession are struggling with issues that need not drive them to a point of crisis. People message me all the time to say that they’ve been feeling dreadful about something that’s going on with them but they don’t feel they need to post because something similar has already been posted. We’ve had a couple of situations where someone thought the anonymous person was posting about a situation that they thought they were on the other end of, but really it was an entirely different person in another part of the country!
ZC: So many surveys seem to be constantly telling us that dentists feel stressed and anxious, how does this marry with your own experience within the profession?
LH: I have suffered from burnout (or moral injury as it may be better described) myself. In fact, in 2015 my anxiety and depression reached such a peak that I became someone I didn’t recognise and was suicidal.
I took some time off work to regain control. It took nearly a month but I came back with a much greater awareness of the stresses this profession can place upon you. I started to look around at my close colleagues and could see the same signs, but also different issues.
I wonder if the Government don’t realise how working within the NHS is grinding dentists’ morale and mental wellbeing into dust? Or maybe they do…
ZC: What’s your sense around the cause(s) for such high levels of stress and anxiety?
LH: The reasons dentists have to feel ‘The Fear’, as I often refer to it, are numerous. Some may seem trivial but will keep even the coolest cucumber awake at night if it all starts adding up. These are things like: staff problems, equipment failures, minor patient complaints (the stuff that just needs an apology letter or a sincere apology in surgery), what to buy long-serving nurse, Sandra, for her retirement, that GP was short in the MB canal of that upper left six today etc.
Other things are much more pressing and obviously problems that anyone could understand: financial issues, health issues, NHS investigations, CQC/HIW inspections, solicitors letters asking for compensation for their dreadfully-wronged client, and, of course, the GDC.
Unfortunately, dentistry has a big element of business, not just patient-centred care. We have to always wear at least two hats and that is draining to one’s virtues and morals.
ZC: Lauren, thank you so much for sharing your story and explaining the work of Mental Dental.
Lauren Harrhy has been a GDP for nearly 10 years. She owns Sparkle Dental Centre in Pontypool, South Wales. She is Vice Chair of the BDA Young Dentists Committee, South East Wales Representative on the BDA GDPC, Vice Chair of Welsh GDPC and also sits on the Welsh Dental Council. Lauren is married with three young children.