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Mental health of dentists and dental hygienists fluctuated during COVID-19, study reports

In the study, anxiety and depression symptoms were shown to vary in degree over time and rates were higher for anxiety than depression. (Image: Robert Petrovic/Shutterstock)

CHICAGO, US: In the first-known US study of its kind, researchers have recently evaluated the mental health of front-line dentists and dental hygienists during the COVID-19 pandemic. They found that dental healthcare workers reported varying degrees of symptoms of anxiety and depression during the peaks of viral shedding. Additionally, the study was the first to examine the association between the COVID-19 vaccine and mental health and reported that dental healthcare workers who were vaccinated showed a lower prevalence of anxiety symptoms compared with unvaccinated ones.

The study is part of an ongoing collaborative research effort between the American Dental Association (ADA) and the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA) to grasp the impact of COVID-19 on dental healthcare workers. It was conducted from June 2020 to June 2021 and included 8,902 dental healthcare workers.

During the study period, 17.7% of dental healthcare workers reported anxiety symptoms, 10.7% reported depression symptoms, and 8.3% reported symptoms of both anxiety and depression.

Interestingly, dental hygienists showed a higher prevalence of both anxiety and depression throughout the study than that shown by dentists. According to the data, their depression (max. 17.3%) and anxiety (max. 28.3%) symptom rates were the highest at the end of 2020 but declined again in 2021. The dentists’ rates of depression symptoms remained largely unchanged throughout the year, and their symptoms of anxiety decreased greatly in the second half of the study period.

At the end of the study period, 11.8% of dentists and 12.4% of hygienists showed symptoms of anxiety, and 8.1% of dentists and 8.4 of dental hygienists showed symptoms of depression.

“Interestingly, dental healthcare workers reported lower rates of anxiety and depression symptoms than the general public, despite being on the front lines and providing oral healthcare during the pandemic,” co-author Dr Stacey Dershewitz, adjunct professor of clinical psychology and director of the Center Clinic at the George Washington University Professional Psychology Program, said in a press release.

“As the pandemic continues, it is critically important that dental healthcare workers continue to develop their ability to recognise and address signs and symptoms of mental health conditions within themselves and their colleagues, promote healthy work environments, reduce the impact of stress on the profession, and make supports accessible to those who are struggling emotionally,” she continued.

“As healthcare professionals, we must be committed to our own health and wellness to optimally care for others
— Prof. Maria L. Geisinger, University of Alabama at Birmingham

According to the researchers, receiving the COVID-19 vaccine offered some ease of mind for the participants. The data showed that unvaccinated dental healthcare workers who intended to be vaccinated suffered significantly more anxiety symptoms (20.6%) compared with dental healthcare workers who were fully vaccinated (14.1%).

“The hope is that this is just the first of many steps in monitoring mental wellness of the entire oral care team,” commented co-author Dr JoAnn Gurenlian, director of education and research for the ADHA. “There is much work to be done to dismantle barriers to treatment and prioritise well-being in the oral care setting, as well as look at future research around contributing factors to mental illness that may be unique to these professions,” she noted.

“As members of the dental profession, we are committed to improving the oral health of our patients and communities. Furthermore, as healthcare professionals, we must be committed to our own health and wellness to optimally care for others,” stated co-author Prof. Maria L. Geisinger, director of the advanced education programme in periodontics in the School of Dentistry at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She noted that creating a professional environment that fosters open communication about overall well-being could reduce the stigma around the diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders for dental healthcare workers.

The study, titled “US dental health care workers’ mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic”, was published jointly in the August 2022 issues of the Journal of the American Dental Association and the Journal of Dental Hygiene.

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