Mental Health in Dental School: A Student Perspective

Corbin Proctor
Published on May 14, 2020. Updated on Sep 15, 2020.

 Are dentists really the unhappiest professionals? Read how one dental student pursued happiness and ended up performing better in dental school as a result. 

When I decided to go to dental school, my friends said, “Dentists have the highest suicide rate of any profession. Do you really want to deal with that?” While talking to a statistician, I mentioned my career interest and the stigma, to which he responded, “If you account for the right variables, anything can be statistically proven.” He concluded by saying “The studies out there never accounted for the proper variables and it's all a myth.” As I looked into it myself, it seems that there is no scientific consensus, merely people arguing over speculation. 

Whether the myth is true or false, statistics don't matter to the individual. As an example, let's say statistically there is a 1 in 1,000 chance you win the lottery. While there is only a small chance you win the lottery the outcome is binary; either you win or you don't. To me this means that it doesn't matter what the statistics say. Rather than worrying about statistics and their accuracy, it would be more productive to work on being happy.

The many hats of a dental student 

I can’t speak to the career of a dentist, as I am still in dental school, but I am currently a student at the only three-year dental program in the country (all the others are four-year programs). As you might imagine, taking one less year of dental school causes the curriculum to be jam-packed. For most of the past year, I have worn many hats simultaneously: I was concurrently a student, dentist, dental assistant, office manager, secretary, club president, club chair, and doing a little work for Osmosis, all while still trying to maintain a social and personal life. Most of my classmates are in a similar situation. Many of us, including myself, have struggled with mental health.

Osmosis illustration of dental student mental health.

Rules to live by 

Doing well in classes seemed to require that most of my miniscule amount of time allotted as “free time” be spent studying. I put all of my effort into my coursework while watching my mental health slowly deteriorate. I quickly recognized that putting all of my time and effort toward getting the best grade possible was not worth the side effects I was feeling. I decided to set rules for myself. 

  • Rule #1: I would take one day a week off, during this time I would do nothing related to school.

  • Rule #2: I would stop all school work by 10 PM if possible, and 11 PM at the latest (no matter the consequence). 

  • Rule #3: I would take time for myself. 

    • Daily: Usually included short meditations and watching Netflix. 

    • Weekly: Usually on my day off, I’d do things like hiking, and rock climbing etc. 

When I explain my rules to students in the medical field, it usually seems foreign to them. As dental students, most of us are used to being top of the class no matter the cost, but to me these rules were the best thing I could have done with my life. Not only did my mental health improve, but my grades either remained constant or even improved. This dual benefit both surprised and delighted me. 

I think most people underestimate or don't understand the full benefit of being happy. I won't claim to understand it either, but anecdotally enjoying life is one of the most important things you could ever do. We aren't machines: we have to take into account our emotions, our difficulties, our stressors. Ignoring these things will almost surely result in unsavory and unintended consequences. 

Osmosis illustration of a dental student finding balance. 

We often think our entire life is changed by the outcome of whatever test we have next. In my experience, this is almost always false. You will be fine if you don't do perfectly on a couple of tests... if we are being honest, you've probably forgotten about most of that stressful microbiology material anyway. Nothing you can do will give you more time in this life so don't live it in a way that makes you unhappy. Love yourself, love today, and be happy!

About Corbin

Corbin Proctor is a third (and final!) year dental student at the University of the Pacific Dental School. Corbin is originally from Utah, is planning on specializing in anesthesiology. He also enjoys pretty much anything involving the outdoors!

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