When a computer becomes overrun with more information than its processor can handle, it crashes. The human brain responds much the same. Take me, for example. I recently wrapped up an ordinary day in the life of a third-year dental student. I had lectures in the morning and treated patients in the afternoon. On the ride home, something felt off. Everything I needed to get done was passing through my mind. I needed to study, finish lab work and prepare a treatment plan for tomorrow’s patient. Aside from school responsibilities, my wife needed me to get groceries. I got home, dropped my bag and knelt on the floor. All at once, those thoughts flooded my brain and I could not move. I just sat there, emotional and frozen.
Compromised mental health is an increasing problem associated with the dental curriculum. A 2008 study in the European Journal of Dental Education compared the mental wellness of first-year students to fifth-year students. Researchers measured several parameters, but most notable, was the burnout (MBI) category. Students’ MBI scores were based on emotional exhaustion (EE), depersonalization (DP) and diminished personal accomplishment (PA). First and fifth-year students scored in the very high-risk categories for EE and DP. PA was determined to be inconclusive as a relation to mental health. Gorter et al. determined that there was a direct correlation between stress, burnout, and mental health. They also noted that the cumulative mental strain can affect practitioner longevity.
Dental students undergo a constant bombardment of stress. Required exams, patient care, lab time and licensure exams add to the mental burden. Top all of that off with having a life, and it creates the perfect recipe for burnout. I knew it would be a rough road as I entered my first year of school. I planned to work hard, but there were no warnings of the looming mental exhaustion. Dental schools typically offer free external mental health counseling services, but is that enough? The University of Iowa College of Dental Medicine conducted a study where students attended psychological counseling appointments. The appointments were completed internally at the dental school. The 2017 study included 55 dental students who attended an average of 4.5 counseling sessions. The results showed students experiencing depression, anxiety and psychological distress functionally improved with each appointment. These findings demonstrate the importance of providing these programs within the dental curriculum.
I do not believe that dental school should be made easier. Hard is good, challenging is healthy. However, schools should organize curricula to keep students engaged, encouraged and motivated. I believe that students need additional resources, including faculty counseling. These resources should be clearly and overtly made available.
I have seen the wear, the mental anguish and the exhaustion of my classmates over the past three years. Student burnout is obvious. At times, it seems there is little to no sympathy, encouragement or positive reinforcement. Perhaps there is a lack of awareness on the part of the faculty and staff. They may not be aware that their actions directly affect student’s mental status. Or perhaps the students are conscious of a stigma around using mental health resources. We are learning how to help those in need within the field of dentistry. Reversing roles and becoming the patient may seem counterintuitive, but could make all the difference.
~Robbie Huot, Minnesota ’18