Mental Health Awareness Week: Loneliness, Our Role as Healthcare Providers

This week is the Mental Health Foundation’s Mental Health Awareness Week and the theme for this year is Loneliness. Loneliness is extremely prevalent in our society and is something I think most of us at some point in our lives have dealt with personally. There are so many ways this can affect us either directly or those we know and I think it is something everyone should be aware of.

Loneliness is a normal part of life, however long-lasting or severe loneliness can affect or mental and physical health and it is now understood to be a social determinant of health and a public health priority. From my point of view professionally there are two ways this can affect dentists; looking out for our patients and looking out for ourselves.

As busy practitioners, we can come into contact with several patients each day and week. It can sometime be hard to connect with each and every person walking through our doors especially if we are running oversubscribed, demanding NHS clinics with targets in place. However any healthcare professional worth their salt, should be building relationships with their patients. Each and every one of them. This is the bedrock of exceptional care. Taking the time to understand our patient’s lives, their day-to-day, their goals, their worries and remembering above all we are treating a human being. I do my best to build strong trusting relationships during each interaction with my patients. Everyone comes from different situations and by understanding our patient’s lives we can hopefully instil confidence in our patients to confide in us if they are struggling. You never know, you may be the only interaction that person has that day.

There are several factors I keep an eye out for in practice for identifying potential patients who may be struggling from loneliness; being widowed, single, unemployed, living alone, having a long term condition/disability, a career, LGBTQ+. This is not an exhaustive list but just points I like to note and there will be plenty of others who may also be suffering. I think the most important point really is to connect with every patient and be a listening ear or a shoulder to lean on, you may never know the true impact you’ve had on that person on that day.

Loneliness is commonplace in healthcare professionals, especially those who work alone. Even a busy dental practice can be the loneliest place within the confines of the four walls of a surgery. Let’s be honest; Healthcare and more specifically Dentistry is extremely stressful and can feel like a pressure cooker most days. It’s certainly something that has affected me. The feeling that no one else has the same problems I do, that I’m the only one struggling with targets or workloads or paper work or whatever it is. It’s only when you speak to others you realise that most other dentists feel the same way and have the exact same struggles you have. Communication is key and talking openly with others about your problems is a healthy way to not only vent but find solutions; and I promise most other colleagues (certainly the ones I’ve came across) are willing to help and not be judgemental. Dentistry does not have to be a lonely place!

Anyone reading this and wants to chat about anything, my DMs/emails are always open and whilst I might not be able to help; I’m happy to listen!

And if you want to find out more about Mental Health Awareness Week please visit the Mental Health Foundation’s website: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week