College can be stressful, especially for those preparing for careers in health professions such as dentistry and medicine. Stress, among many other factors, can take a toll on students and impede their ability to learn. Staff and faculty at Texas A&M School of Dentistry have made addressing mental health a priority for their students.
“It’s important for our students to be healthy on all fronts,” says Dr. Ernestine Lacy, associate dean of student affairs. “Stress, health issues, other kinds of factors, can lead to less than optimal performance. Therefore, it’s important to address mental health along with general health so our students are in the best possible condition to perform well.”
The source of students’ stress is multifaceted.
“All at once, you are expected to learn a variety of new, challenging concepts and clinical skills, balance school with family, friends and other responsibilities, all while making it look completely manageable the whole time,” said Dr. Joan Daniel, then a second-year dental student at the University of New England College of Dental Medicine and an ADEA GoDental contributor.
“Free time is rare and it’s easy to feel fatigued by the end of the day,” she explained in an ADEA GoDental post she wrote. “Often students start to feel burned out and don’t know how to overcome it.”
Several faculty and staff members at the school have convened an informal task force to work specifically on increasing access to mental health resources for students, including tools to incorporate wellness activities into their routines. The group is led by Dr. Alicia Spence, clinical assistant professor in comprehensive dentistry and director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Office of Academic Affairs. The Mental Health and Wellness Task Force, she says, is currently undergoing the process with the school to become a formally recognized committee.
Some plans the task force has for the near future include monthly “Wellness Wednesdays” for faculty, students and staff. These will include complimentary food, stress relieving activities and guest speakers. They also want to bring a piano on campus for students to play during their downtime.
“We want to give students an outlet for stress and a place for them to come together, especially before busy exam weeks,” Spence says. “Our biggest contribution will be providing training for our faculty in areas of mental health. We hope that this will benefit their own health as well as equip them to assist students who are struggling.”
Dr. Martha Alvarez, task force member and adjunct assistant professor in pediatrics, says that one of the most important resources students have for resilience against stress is each other. Like Lacy and other faculty members, Alvarez takes the mental wellbeing of her students seriously. She wants them to be resilient, physically and mentally, to be truly prepared for their future, she says.
“If you want to be a dentist or a dental hygienist, you need to know how to manage stress,” Alvarez says. “Developing coping skills in college is a good way to start. This is preventative care and can help avoid stress turning into a crisis. Self-awareness is important. One needs to know when a helping hand is required.”
Alvarez encourages students to reach out to friends and mentors, and to offer support when possible. She also recommends finding time for outside interests and getting enough sleep to help with stress management.
While the School of Dentistry does not currently have an on-campus counseling office, psychological counseling services are readily available to all students. With a referral by the Office of Student Affairs, students may receive up to six sessions of confidential, off-campus counseling at no cost. If additional sessions are recommended, the costs can be covered with approval by student affairs.
The school also has an arrangement with Texas A&M School of Medicine, on the campus of Baylor University Medical Center next door, to address emergency needs for psychological services. Additionally, the school is in the process of hiring an on-campus counselor as another resource for students, Lacy says
The university also has a confidential, free app, My SSP, that offers virtual counseling sessions and other mental health resources. Another university service is the HelpLine, an after-hours mental health phone service that provides peer support, information, crisis intervention and referrals to students, as well as those concerned about students. The HelpLine (979.845.2700) is available from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. weekdays and 24 hours a day on weekends when classes are in session. More information about these, and other services, can be found online at www.caps.tamu.edu.
There is also online assistance available through the federal government at www.mentalhealth.gov, a website with articles and other resources to assist with mental health and wellbeing.
Students are encouraged to use all the mental health/wellness resources available to them.
“We want to generate a healthcare force that is resilient, and that know how to take care of themselves, which may include seeking help, so they can take care of somebody else,” says Alverez.