Content Warning: This article discusses the topics of dentistry burnout and suicide in dentistry. If you’ve had thoughts of self-harm or suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for help using the three-digit dialing code 988.
At NextLevel, I see the impact of dentistry burnout every day. Many of the dentists who partner with us do so because they have reached maximum levels of stress and anxiety. and they need help. Burnout is ingrained in the industry. In fact, it begins in dental school and trains dentists that elevated levels of stress, anxiety and even depression are the norm.
A 2014 article shared on the American Dental Association (ADA) website notes that male dentists hold the highest suicide rate of any medical profession — 8 percent. Female dentists report the fourth highest suicide rate at a little over 5 percent. To put that number in perspective, the national average for people of all genders who die by suicide is 0.42 percent. That is a staggering disparity.
As of 2021, 54 percent of dentists reported that they experienced medium to high levels of depression. The problem is so prevalent that the ADA has developed a resource guide for identifying depression in colleagues and guiding them toward seeking help. Many dentists will turn to substance abuse to cope. Or, they find themselves slowly damaging their relationships as their depression lingers and their stress increases each year. What is causing this dental burnout? Based on my experience, I have created a list of some of the challenges we see driving dentists to the edge and impacting their mental health.
Why Are Dentists Getting Burned Out?
1. Undervalued and Isolated
Despite its intrinsic value to complete health, dentistry is often maligned and overlooked as a medical profession. Dentistry can be isolating. Dentists struggle to build the same rapport that other medical professionals are able to create with their patients. The reality is that many people fear the dentist and avoid going. Their fears are boosted by fictional movies and television programs that constantly reinforce that the dentist’s office is a place of pain. It is no surprise that many dentists feel isolated and undervalued by patients and the medical community at large. They provide a valuable, life-prolonging service. But, their work is often disregarded by patients and shown less respect by peers in other disciplines.
2. Overworked and Underprepared
I say it often in my work, a dental education does not prepare a dentist for the business side of operating a private practice. Since more than 80% of practices are privately run, that is a huge problem. The result of this gap in education is that the dentist is left navigating a completely separate career they were not trained for (running a business) while still performing the duties of their actual career (dentistry). They make common mistakes like hiring inexperienced or disinterested employees or failing to become effective leaders. The reasons that dentists make these mistakes is not because they are not intelligent — far from it! Dentistry is a profession that demands intelligence. The reason that dentists make such mistakes is that they were never trained not to.
3. In Debt and Delaying Retirement
The average age of retirement for a dentist is 68 years old. The average age of retirement for the rest of America is 62 years old. There are numerous factors that contribute to this statistic, but I will only be addressing two. The first reason is that a lucrative income can disguise debt until it’s too late. Some dentists find themselves ready to retire only to realize it may be impossible until their debts are settled. Others may realize they did not fund their retirement with their current lifestyle in mind. The other issue causing the delay in retirement is that a private dental practice requires shrewd business decisions to stay profitable at the level required to retire in a reasonable timeframe. If a practice does not have a concrete strategy, mistakes can be costly.
Offering Hope for Struggling Dentists
While the beginning of this article may feel bleak, I want to leave you with a feeling of hope and determination. Working together, we can raise awareness about the mental health and addiction struggles dentists face. We can encourage our loved ones to seek help when they are struggling. We must remove the stigma of addressing mental health and addiction issues. By doing so, I know that we can transform how this career impacts mental health.
I have partnered with several key organizations interested in collaborating to effect change in the dental industry. We have formed an organization called Unstoppable Dental Heroes, a non-profit aspiring to zero suicide within the dental industry. We are working to develop mental health resources that address the needs that are unique to dentistry. Through our outreach, we believe that we can come together as people who care and make a change.
Click here to listen to Gary Kadi talk with Dental Economics about mental health and suicide in the dental profession, as well as his personal struggles with addiction.
Mental Health Resources for Dentists
If you are in urgent need of support, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for help using the three-digit dialing code 988 immediately. You will be connected with a person who can help.
If your issues are not life-threatening, here are some other resources you may find useful.
- Mental Health Care in Dentistry: A Trauma Informed Approach to Suicide Prevention: This 1.5-hour course will educate you on mental health conditions and provide you with resources and strategies for identifying mental health conditions and addressing them.
- Unstoppable Dental Heroes Zero Suicide Industry Needs and Strengths Survey: Take this brief survey to help us help members of the industry identify pain points and enact real change in the community. Your responses are confidential.
- Unstoppable Dental Heroes Donation: Your contribution supports Unstoppable Dental Heroes and supports mental health advocacy and education in the dental industry.
- The Ultimate Workplace Mental Health Toolkit: Created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the resources in this kit supports dentists in addressing mental health issues in their staff and within themselves. It includes information on how to develop an office culture that supports mental health awareness and healthy teams.
- Direct Message Gary Kadi: This link will take you directly to my personal social media messenger. I’m not a licensed mental health professional but I am happy to donate my time to direct you to helpful resources.
Next Steps You Can Take to Create Change
If you have experienced any of the issues discussed in this article, it is important to seek professional help. Ask your physician or insurance provider about your options for mental health treatment. Share what you are experiencing with your loved ones. The statistics show that these are not issues you should tackle on your own. There is hope and help for getting yourself back on track in a profession you love. We are here to help.
Have you found yourself on the road to burnout? Are you worried about your work/life balance, retirement and the future of your practice? NextLevel Practice may be able to help. Call today to set up a free coaching session to discuss the health of your practice!