No doubt you’ve heard that dentists have the highest suicide rate of any profession. Is that true?
Well before I address that, let’s talk briefly about depression. Everyone gets a little down now and then; it’s a part of life. The next level of depressive reaction is reached when that down feeling lingers for a few days to weeks to even a few months. It’s temporary but the symptoms can be severe, including sleeplessness, irritibility, and lack of enjoyment of normal activities. Major depression is a longer lasting and more severe condition that can lead to suicidal ideation. These depressive episodes are often triggered by a specific negative event (or series of events) or they can occur spontaneously. Then there are the spectrum of depressive disorders (e.g. Bipolar Disorder) that affect fewer of us but can be devastating.
I’ve experienced depressive reactions a couple of times in my life. The first time was in my third year of dental school when I was falling behind in my clinical requirements. Not only was I under significant pressure to catch up, I was wondering if I was cut out for this whole dentistry thing. I was slow, disorganized, and afraid of hurting my patients. I snapped out of it after a couple of months thanks to the support of my friends and family. Since then I can only recall one other time a couple of years ago that I felt that same crushing bleakness. It just feels like 100 pounds of sadness is sitting on your chest all day. Fortunately my symptoms were not severe. I was able to identify what was happening right away and I kept positive knowing that it would soon pass. And it did.
But it doesn’t pass for some of us. So are dentists the profession most likely to take their own lives? The research is a bit unclear, as this study points out. Do a quick Google search on professions most likely to commit suicide and dentistry will appear usually in the top 3. I believe it… we’re under a tremendous amount of stress. Our work is physically demanding, patients can be unpleasant, and running a small business is scary at times.
I’ve personally known two dentists who have taken their own lives. Both had apparently suffered from chronic depression that required medication, but no one knew about that until after they had left us. I miss them.
If you even remotely suspect that a colleague may be battling depression, please reach out to them. Take them aside as a friend and ask how they’re doing. If it seems like they’re unable to handle it themselves then get them the help they need. Your local dental society may also be able to help. Dentists do suffer from depression more frequently than the general population, so let’s not let each other suffer alone.