Ahead of World Mental Health Day on 10 October, Dr Peter Nixon, Head of Clinical Services at Bupa Dental Care, discusses his recovery from alcohol addiction and why we must encourage more open conversations about mental health.
Please can you tell us about your role at Bupa?
I’m Head of Clinical Services for Bupa Dental Care. As part of my role, I support clinicians who are struggling with mental health-related issues, such as drug and alcohol addiction, stress and eating disorders. I help signpost them to local support services and get them into recovery programmes. In the UK, one in four people experience a mental health issue each year, and research has shown that nearly half of dentists say they cannot cope with the level of stress in their job. I believe we need to do all we can to support our team members through their problems and help them get well, so they can return to work.
Have you ever struggled with your own mental health?
In my life I’ve had to deal with my own alcoholism and recovery, as well as periods of clinical depression. There have been many dark days where life was not a joy. My recovery started almost 27 years ago when I was working in my practice in South Yorkshire. Addiction was destroying my professional and personal life.
With the help of a charity called the Dentists’ Health Support Trust, I got the support I needed leading to treatment, rehabilitation and recovery. My personal experience with mental illness ignited a real passion within me to want to help others. I often speak at different forums about my personal story and find that being open and honest about my own struggles helps people relate my experience to what is happening in their own lives and can prompt them to come forward for help.
Is mental health a problem in dentistry?
Unfortunately, so. Research published in the BDJ earlier this year noted that dentists have higher levels of suicidal thought compared to the general population, with almost two thirds admitting they had thought about ending their lives in the previous 12 months. I have experienced colleague suicides myself and heard from others first-hand about the impact suicide has had on their lives.
It’s often said that there is ‘no health without mental health’, and I couldn’t agree with this more. Early on in my recovery, someone said to me ‘You can’t practice dentistry with a broken arm and you shouldn’t practice dentistry with a broken head.’ It’s so true that we must place our mental health and wellbeing alongside, if not above, our physical health.
Why do you think this is?
Dentistry is an extremely high-stress profession and there is no doubt that this has an impact on people’s mental wellbeing. The reasons for this are varied and begin right from the beginning of pursuing a career in our industry, with the high academic standards expected from students wanting to commence a dentistry degree.
Other common sources of stress relate to patient complaints and the threat of litigation. Our patients expect perfection from us at all times and this, coupled with the fact that the majority really don’t want to be in the dentist’s chair, means there is no room for error. Doing surgical procedures all day long and the need to keep to patient schedules, all add pressure to the working day.
How do you look after your own mental wellbeing?
I work at my ongoing recovery every day. I still attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings every week and look after my physical health by going to the gym, eating well and making sure I get enough sleep. Recently I’ve discovered yoga and mindfulness techniques which I find really help improve my mental wellbeing.
Bupa employees have access to the Healthy Minds, a 24/7 confidential telephone service to help people deal with challenges faced at work, the Anytime Healthline which provides confidential health advice, and access to an interactive digital tool to help colleagues manage their everyday emotional wellbeing and work-life balance.
What advice do you have for others?
It’s important to find ways to stay mentally well and develop your ability to cope with the pressures of everyday life, for example:
- Talk about the way you are feeling – sometimes just saying things out loud can really help acknowledge how you’re feeling. Find someone you trust who will listen and support you.
- Take time for yourself – this is really important for your wellbeing. Try mindfulness, a technique which can help you be more aware of your feelings, feel calmer and less stressed.
- Lead a healthy lifestyle –look after your physical health. Eating well, getting enough sleep and exercise can all have positive effects on our mental health.
- Build your support network – this could be joining a group or talking with peers who have had similar experiences. Surround yourself with people who can help support you.
- Consider your spiritual Health – organised religions, as well as other spiritual bodies, understand some of the essence of being human.
- Working with others – in your community and family is a place to practice ‘self-forgetting’ and personal growth.
- Ask for help – there are several support organisations out there who offer confidential support services for anyone in difficulty:
Dentists’ Health Support Programme
0207 224 4671
 McManus S, Bebbington P, Jenkins R, Brugha T. Mental health and wellbeing in England: Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2014 [Internet]. Leeds; 2016. Available from: NHS digital
 British Dental Journal