Let The Stigma Cease: Chemical Dependency in the Dental Office

by John LeMaster, DMD

How things change. Did you know that for many years after the construction of the Washington Monument, women were not allowed to ride in the elevator with men?

It was deemed inappropriate for a woman or women to be in such close quarters with men. The ride was 12 minutes long. The men, therefore, rode the elevator and the women had to climb the many hundreds of stairs to reach the top.

We have come a long way since then. So have times changed in the acceptance of chemical dependence by the dental profession. In years past, alcoholism and drug addiction were considered a moral issue: a weakness, a personality flaw.

In 1956, when the American Medical Association recognized alcoholism as a disease process, many professionals scoffed, “It’s not a disease; they are just weak and immoral people.”

The stigma associated with chemical dependency remained. So did the hiding of many professionals’ chemical dependency. A secret nightmare was faced on a daily basis by dependent professionals and those around them–especially those that loved and cared about them. Compromised oral care continued: cover-ups, lies, deviant behavior, screams for help that were never acknowledged.

Today, many famous people whom we as a society hold in regard (for example, Brett Favre, Robert Downey Jr.) are breaking through their denial and shamelessly entering recovery, through treatment programs and self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

Well-being programs for physicians, dentists, attorneys and other professionals are organizing and growing rapidly in the United States, Canada and throughout the world. Education about chemical dependency has become mainstream in our society with education beginning in grammar school. The stigma once attached to chemical dependency is slowly fading, thank heavens.

Those who have lived a daily nightmare are able to come out of hiding and ask for help. Those previous cries for help are now being acknowledged and guided toward the process of recovery. There is less condemnation by peers faulting those with disease as “weak” or “immoral.”

The ADA Policy Statement on Chemical Dependency states, in part: “The ADA is committed to assisting the chemically dependent member of the dental family toward recovery from the disease by education, information and referral.” Thus the entire dental family shares the responsibility to solve this problem. Isn’t dentistry a family?

Unfortunately, there are some professionals who still embrace their ignorance and act as judge and jury toward those who have suffered in the grips of addiction. There are still some diehards who refuse to modify their thinking, change with the times, accept new diagnoses and help others with their disease.

Like the elephant in the living room, they either ignore it and tiptoe around it, or they condemn it and anyone associated with it. It’s fascinating to see some of these “professionals” who profess to be God-fearing, moral individuals snub their noses at recovering individuals.

Dentistry is a very stressful profession. Combine that with access to a prescription pad or liquor store and you have a lethal combination. While the incidence of chemical dependency among health professions seems to be equivalent to that in the general population, the stakes are much higher.

Although the stigma regarding chemical dependency has diminished greatly, there still remains some animosity and misunderstanding regarding recovering practitioners.

What is the solution? We should offer our colleagues ways to become more knowledgeable and we should educate one another about chemical dependency. Instead of judging and condemning, we should be doing everything within our power to help others in our profession.

Let the stigma cease!

Dr. LeMaster is a private practitioner in Kernersville, NC.