University of Alabama at Birmingham: Study shows pandemic increased depression and anxiety in dental health care workers

Research published in the Journal of the American Dental Association involving faculty from the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Dentistry found that dental health care providers reported anxiety and depression symptoms during peaks of transmission among the public during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study, titled “U.S. Dental Health Care Workers’ Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” is the first known United States study to evaluate the mental health of practicing dentists and dental hygienists during the pandemic.

During the one-year study between June 2021 and June 2022, 17.7 percent of DHCWs reported anxiety symptoms, 10.7 percent reported symptoms of depression, and 8.3 percent reported symptoms of both anxiety and depression. Dental hygienists reported higher rates of anxiety and depression symptoms than dentists at each surveyed time point.

“This project was a part of a larger evaluation of the impact of COVID-19 on dental health care providers during the height of the pandemic,” said lead author Maria (Mia) L. Geisinger, DDS, professor in the UAB School of Dentistry and director of Advanced Education in Periodontology. “This was important, particularly early in the pandemic, because we were very concerned about burnout among DHCPs, and we wanted to assess the impact vaccination and community COVID-19 infection rates had on the mental health of these providers. As they are caregivers, the mental and physical wellness of our dental health providers is critically important to be able to provide optimal care to patients and communities.”

Geisinger and her colleagues surveyed 8,902 dental health care workers monthly through an anonymous, web-based survey. They found that anxiety symptoms peaked in November 2020 and depression symptoms peaked in December 2020 for both dentists and dental hygienists. In November 2020, 17 percent of dentists and 28 percent of dental hygienists reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety. This number decreased to about 12 percent for both professions in May 2021. In December 2020, 10 percent of dentists and 17 percent of dental hygienists reported depression symptoms. This percentage decreased to about 8 percent for both professions in May 2021.

This study is also the first to examine the association between vaccine delivery and mental health. Researchers found that overall participants’ anxiety symptoms decreased after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, with approximately 20.6 percent of unvaccinated dental health care workers who intended to be vaccinated experiencing anxiety compared to 14.1 percent of those who were fully vaccinated.

“Through our research, we wanted to better understand the initial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health of DHCWs and work to support all members of the dental profession,” Geisinger said. “By focusing on mental well-being through training programs and the development of support infrastructure to help DHCWs who may be experiencing mental health challenges, we can better support our colleagues and their ability to care for patients.”