“Thank you for calling Dental Practitioner Support — a national support service for dental practitioners providing confidential advice and referrals for issues related to their health. If you are a dental practitioner or student seeking advice on an issue related to your health or a colleague’s, please press 1.”
I’m not too sure why I am calling to be perfectly honest.
I wouldn’t say I’m feeling particularly stressed. Yes, there’s a mild sense of responsibility to catch up on the pile of lectures I haven’t touched all year. Yes, there’s the headache of trying to meet clinical requirements, whilst being hit by a barrage of patients failing to attend their appointments. And yes, of course, there’s the loom of impending graduation and the need to find someone who might want to hire me. There’s a lot of little stressors, but after enduring two years of lockdowns and uncertainty, there’s really not much that phases me anymore.
Perhaps that’s the term for how I feel — unphased. But otherwise, I’m perfectly fine, aren’t I?
The line connects.
I guess it is too late to back out now.
I’m greeted by Alison*, one of the counsellors that is on duty this Saturday evening. Her voice is warm and welcoming. I admit to her that I don’t really know why I’m calling, but I’ve been putting it off for quite some time and have finally decided to bite the bullet. Perhaps it would be worthwhile just having a chat. Alison tells me that’s what she’s there for, and in fact, most people who call find themselves feeling the same way.
It’s a little bit awkward and I’m not too sure what to say. I start by telling her that I’m a final year dental student, and what it’s been like during the pandemic — it’s an easy, universal topic to start off with. We talk about the struggles we’ve gone through with lockdown and isolation, but I feel like I’ve moved beyond that now. It wasn’t something that particularly bothered me anymore or that I really wanted to talk about, and so we don’t push it further.
I tell Alison that I love being busy again. I love being in the clinic, seeing my friends, treating patients and going out. But between my time in the clinic, work, social events and travel, there really isn’t much time to breathe. Having gone from months on end with no plans or commitments to a back-to-back schedule, this has been a huge shift for me. I think I’m doing okay, but perhaps that’s because I haven’t had a moment to think otherwise. And so, maybe it would be worthwhile to do a wellbeing check-in.
Alison agrees and tells me that this is the best time to reach out. She makes the analogy that it’s like taking your pet to the vet on a regular basis to make sure everything is in order and to pick up on things that you may not have previously realised were a problem. I realise then that this session is no different to how we advocate for regular check-ups for our patients, emphasising preventative care over treatment.
Mental wellbeing shouldn’t be something that we only focus on when we’re stressed and burnt out. Rather, it should be something we make a habit of practicing regularly, much like brushing our teeth, to prevent us fizzling out in the first place. It’s about building that resilience and setting up measures so that we can take better care of ourselves.
Alison asks me about my current self-care practices, and as we go through them, I find myself opening up a little more about myself. I tell her about the doubts I’ve had lately. Nothing that has caused me significant distress, but definitely a change I’ve noticed within myself that I can’t quite put my finger on or decide whether it’s a good or bad thing.
Alison listens. She gives me reassurance, suggestions and plenty of space to think and speak. And even though I ramble, jumping from here to there, she is patient and asks questions to get me thinking a little more. The conversation is a nice one and it eases my heart a little.
I feel safe and comfortable, and I find myself sharing another incident to get Alison’s thoughts. This one has me a little more fired up and Alison helps me break it all down. I vent, she gasps, a few bad words are thrown in from both parties and we have a giggle over it.
Someone once told me that what they loved about talking to a counsellor was the fact that you could get things off your chest without putting that burden onto your loved ones. I never used to understand it. I thought it was odd to talk to a stranger about your personal life and feelings. How could they possibly understand if they weren’t there to witness all the little nuances and subtleties of your life. But I think I’m starting to see the value in it now.
It’s an interesting dynamic to have someone who is there purely to listen to you. Where their attention is entirely devoted to what you want to say. Where they don’t have any preconceived judgements, biases or opinions. It’s a different feeling, but it’s comforting to have someone on your side even though you’ve never met them before.
I think ultimately, I had all the answers I needed already, as we often all do. I just needed to let my thoughts out and to have the clarity of an outsider’s perspective.
For someone who didn’t really know what to say and was doing ‘perfectly fine’, I sure had a lot of thoughts and plenty to say. An hour flies by in an instant.
Alison tells me that I am welcome to call again whenever I need to although she might not be the one that picks up next time I do. She reminds me everything I say is entirely confidential and anonymous and reassures me that Dental Practitioner Support has 12 wonderful counsellors that are available 24/7 and are always happy to have a chat.
As we say our goodbyes and I hang up, I feel a wave of ease wash over me.
Perhaps it goes to show that we can all benefit from a wellness check-in, even if we don’t think we need it. It can be easy to downplay and dismiss all the little stressors in our lives with a simple, “I’m fine”. However, if left unchecked, these little stressors can pile up and become something unmanageable, leaving us feeling overwhelmed and unlike our usual selves. As Alison said, perhaps the best time to call really is when we’re feeling okay. This is the time to dip our toes in, get a feel for the water and see how things flow from there.
I think I’ll take Alison up on the offer to call again. Perhaps we can do it together!
If you ever need to chat, even if you feel perfectly fine, it all begins with picking up the phone. Reach out — 1800 377 700.
Erica is currently a final year dental student at The University of Sydney. Outside of student clinics, she also helps coordinate and co-host the Dental Head Start podcast which advocates for dental students and new graduates, and aims to help them transition from textbooks to real life practice. Growing up in a family full of story-tellers, Erica has always been fascinated with hearing about peoples’ lives — whether it be that of friends, patients or mentors in the industry. She’s a firm believer that everyone has a story worth telling, and is deserving of being given a voice and heard.