Psychological therapy once held a stigma. Many people resisted seeking therapy and were ashamed to tell family and friends that they needed it. Fortunately, today it is more likely to be treated the same way we do a physical ailment. But a doctor or therapist who is trained to help us cope with life has no idea what psychological trauma dentistry dishes out. How can we describe the angst of trying to inject a sweating, phobic patient or the sneer of a patient who thinks they are paying for that proverbial Mercedes? How can they understand a post-COVID-19 dental world where we truly are in the trenches with the unseen killer, praying our PPE does the job it is intended for?
There has never been a mental health organization designed specifically to help dental professionals, even though higher suicide rates in dentistry have been discussed for years. While more recent studies have cast doubt on this assumption, the fact remains that dentistry is a stressful job, now more than ever. The CDC says that professions with high suicide rates may see greater risks because of job-related isolation and demands, stressful work environments, and work-home imbalance … to which many dental workers can relate.1
Other factors include financial pressures, which dentists may currently be experiencing after being forced to close due to the pandemic. Confinement in a small, often windowless operatory is said to be another reason dental professionals are at risk for depression. Isolation is attributed to dentists who practice solo, thus lacking colleagues to vent frustration. The repetitive patient conversation that includes “You’re not a real doctor” and “I hate seeing you” is also blamed for creating insecurities in dentists. And, of course, one of the many possible reasons put forth for suicide is the dentist’s personality type, leading to unrealistic expectations of him/herself and extreme conscientiousness.2
To help fill the void of dental-specific behavioral therapy, a nonprofit organization was formed last November by three dental hygienists. The Dental Mental Network has a mission: To help dental professionals with mental health issues survive and thrive by helping remove the stigma, offering support and resources, and providing a platform for sharing their stories.
The Dental Mental Network
The Dental Mental Network (DMN) was founded by Sue Jeffries, Carlos Rodriguez, and Sandy Lee with a launch in November 2019. Utilizing their Facebook page, website, and Instagram, this unprecedented group has served as an invaluable resource for many. Those who have been helped suffer from mental illness or simply want to live better lives by learning coping skills or finding support within their peer groups. Through the support of this nonprofit organization, we can find a place for healing, sharing, and becoming better people as well as the best dental clinicians we can be. Unlike teletherapy companies that match you up with a licensed therapist (such as Talkspace, BetterHelp, Amwell, Doctor on Demand, and others) DMN is a free 24-7 resource platform. Those needing to vent, talk, or just read posts from others with likeminded concerns can participate or send a private message to the moderators for a more personal discussion.
The founding members all have their individual stories to tell, which led them to meet the need for a dental-specific support group. Sue, Sandy, and Carlos have all suffered differing versions of mental health issues and have banded together to offer help and hope to others as they work their way through personal trials.
Sue Jeffries, RDH, BSDH
Sue Jeffries is a well-known dental hygienist who has made her mark on the field through her work with Smiles at Sea as a speaker, advocate for oral cancer awareness, and the driving force behind DMN. She is a veteran of the US Navy. She views her 35 years in dentistry as a well-loved career, but not what defines her. Living with bipolar 1 disorder and frequent bouts of manic depression does not define her either, but it certainly does make life interesting, difficult, and dynamic all at the same time. Sue’s illness went undiagnosed for years, and untreated mental illness affected not only her life, but the lives of everyone around her. Like so many, there was no listening, understanding, or accepting that she needed help. She was 49 years old, at her lowest of lows, with a solid plan to kill herself before she finally received that help.
After decades of suffering alone with this disease, treatment changed Sue’s life and that of her family. She once again could be the mother she envisioned herself to be. Today is a miracle; Sue tells herself this daily, even on those days when the energy to dress or smile remains elusive. Her why now becomes you. She openly shares her story, experiences, and wins and losses so that you know, without a doubt, that you are not alone. In her imperfectness, Sue raises up her head and her voice, and she raises up awareness. Sue pledges to be the promise of hope for you that her daughter was for her. If you send out a message on the Dental Mental Network at 4 AM, it may very well be Sue’s warm answer that will greet you: “Welcome, friend. I am so glad to meet you and so glad you are here! You are not alone.”
Sandy Lee, RDH
Sandy Lee has limitless energy to devote to both Dental Mental Network and her own Facebook support group for general dental hygiene concerns, Lighthearted RDH. She has been in the dental field for over 15 years and her passion is working in the public health sector. Throughout her life, she has endured many trials, including an abusive childhood, miscarriages, and cancer. She just celebrated her sixth “cancerversary” in May! Her infectious laughter and upbeat sense of humor are indicators of her resilience and strong will. For those members of DMN or Lighthearted RDH needing spiritually based support, Sandy maintains a strong relationship with God. During the quarantine, she sponsored weekly “fireside chats” via Facebook Live. These talks were supportive and uplifting to those of us who tuned in, and peppered with Sandy’s humor that never failed to produce tears of another kind as we rallied together to face the fears of the future state of dentistry and life.
The Lighthearted RDH group shares concerns regarding the practice of dental hygiene as well as those of a personal nature. Members across the country have networked and, in some cases, met in person when help was needed. During the COVID quarantine, a member pleaded for anyone living in the same city as her mother to provide her assistance, and an RDH sister came to her aid. This is the basic premise of the Dental Mental Network: helping anyone who needs it or directing them to someone who can.
Another outlet for dental professionals seeking humor and diversion is the podcast that Sandy and another DMN founder, Carlos Rodriguez, present called Off Your Flosser.
This entertaining and often very informative podcast can feature anything from a relevant guest speaker to Carlos and Sandy giving advice on forehead tattoos, convertible flip flops, and how not to embarrass your mother. You can view them on YouTube, Apple, or the Off Your Flosser podcast Facebook page. Sandy feels that she is on a mission to help and encourage people on their journeys through life’s trials. She works daily to make at least one person smile. With the broad audience base that follows Sandy, it is certain that she goes above and beyond her daily goal.
Carlos Rodriguez, RDH
Carlos Rodriguez served in the US Navy and has been a dental hygienist for 23 years. His work as a clinician is important to him, but his fame in the stand-up comedy circuit arises from being the only dental hygienist comedian. He felt the calling to be part of the Dental Mental Network because he knows everyone has something that they are dealing with, be it a sick spouse or a “wild toenail.” He grew up poor, but what his family lacked in material possessions they made up for in humor and a healthy outlook on life. Carlos quickly learned that you cannot always change your circumstances, but you can change your perspective. He enjoys being onstage entertaining his audience about what it is like to be a well-built Hispanic male and a dental hygienist. He also entertains dental groups with an engaging, educational, and entertaining CE experience. He performs often in his home city of Atlanta as well as venues in major cities and Smiles at Sea. Giving back is his passion, and he has performed for fundraising and corporate events from coast to coast.
Carlos enjoys recording Off Your Flosser with Sandy Lee. It is the perfect way to unwind on the drive home after a long day in the office. It’s never heavy, definitely not boring, and as Carlos puts it, “minimally educational.” The therapeutic effect the podcast elicits is the distraction of the mind for an hour listening to a pair of humorous yet sensitive people discussing life in a lighthearted way. Like the others in this DMN trio of motivational hygienists, Carlos uses his position onstage to change people’s moods for the better. He has a website, CarlosRDH.com, where his schedule for both standup comedy and “edutainment” can be viewed.
How you can help
Running a website and a 501(c)(3) nonprofit group does not come without a price. DMN would like to be able to offer more assistance to those in need of a resource they cannot afford, and to hire professionals to speak via virtual meetings. Lighthearted RDH has an ongoing fundraiser in the form of donated money when anyone purchases their specially designed pendant:
The Dental Mental Network is currently in need of monetary donations as well as consultants and coaches (life, dental practice, or otherwise) who are willing to donate resources to save a practice or a life. Your tax-deductible services can be promoted on the Facebook page and website. The group has also formed a GoFundMe page where donations can be made, and you can also donate directly on the website.
Sue, Sandy, and Carlos welcome you to their support groups with whatever platform you choose. It is now more important than ever that we practice self-care. Dental offices are suffering in the post-COVID reality and we need to support one another and keep our mental health intact.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or has had thoughts of harming yourself or taking your own life, get help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) provides 24/7 free and confidential support for people in distress, as well as best practices for professionals and resources to aid in prevention and crisis situations.
1. Gawel R. Suicide and dentistry: Myths, realities, and prevention. Dent Today. July 13, 2016. www.dentistrytoday.com/news/todays-dental-news/item/1098-suicide-and-dentistry-myths-realities-and-prevention
2. Sergent B. Suicide in dentistry: Revealing the facts. Today’s RDH. October 10, 2019. https://www.todaysrdh.com/suicide-in-dentistry-revealing-the-facts/
Linda Rhoades, RDH, BS, has practiced clinical dental hygiene for 39 years and has worked in education, writing, and speaking. She is a supporter of the Dental Mental Network and frequent contributor on Lighthearted RDH.