Study Probes Rates, Causes of Depression Among Dental Students

July 23, 2020— Dental students in California experience depressive symptoms at a rate similar to those of medical students and higher than the general population, according to a study in the July issue of the Journal of Dental Education (JDE), published by the American Dental Education Association (ADEA).

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“These findings suggest a noteworthy proportion of dental students experience compromised mental health and require accessible resources,” wrote the authors of the study. “Identifying the prevalence of major depressive symptoms in dental students is only the first step. These findings represent an opportunity for dental schools to create dynamic interventions and offer support for students in need.”

The article, titled “High depressive symptom prevalence in dental students associated with lifestyle and well-being characteristics,” was written by Avigael R. Lerman, B.S.; Karisa K. Yamamoto, B.S.; George W. Taylor, D.M.D., Dr.P.H., all with the Department of Preventive and Restorative Dental Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Dentistry; and Sophia G. Saeed, D.M.D., with the Department of General Practice and Public Health at the University of Texas School of Dentistry at Houston.

In 2018, survey forms were sent to 2,552 domestic and international predoctoral dental students at six California dental schools: the University of California, San Francisco, School of Dentistry; University of California, Los Angeles, School of Dentistry; University of the Pacific, Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry; Loma Linda University School of Dentistry; Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC; and Western University of Health Sciences College of Dental Medicine. The participation rate was 19.1%.

In the article, the authors noted the unique pressures that dental students face: “Dental students possess stressors similar to medical students, and additionally, bear the burden of significantly higher educational debt, experience a higher frequency of chronic pain and injury, and are at greater risk of exposure to bloodborne pathogens.”

Yet, they added, few studies on depression among U.S. dental students existed. According to the authors, this study is the first multi-institutional study to investigate depression in U.S. dental students. Notably, the surveys were conducted well before the COVID-19 outbreak, which has introduced a new set of pressures on dental students.  


Among the findings:

  • International students reported more depressive symptoms than domestic students (48% vs. 26%).
  • Among domestic students, first-year and third-year students reported the highest proportions of major depressive symptom (30.8% and 31.43%).
  • Those planning careers in academic dentistry had the lowest proportion of participants with major depressive symptoms (14.8% vs. 22.1% to 36.5% for other categories of post-graduation plans).
  • Those who identified as minority in terms of ethnicity, religion, gender identity, or sexual orientation were significantly more likely to have major depressive symptoms.

Additionally, the authors found that confidence in a simulation lab or clinic was a significant factor associated with depression.

“This may be due to dentistry’s tendency to attract conscientious individuals with perfectionist tendencies who may not have encountered previous academic challenges,” they wrote. “Students who are not able to easily grasp haptic skills often experience a sense of failure, thus contributing to depression.”

The study examined multiple other factors and their association with depression, including social elements (such as having a best friend), physical activity, financial pressures, and a sense of belonging to a community.

The authors called for additional research to identify students who may be at risk and to help develop solutions to improve the well-being of all students.

JDE is a peer-reviewed monthly journal that publishes a wide variety of educational and scientific research in dental, allied dental and advanced dental education. All ADEA individual members have free access to the online JDE.

About ADEA: The American Dental Education Association (ADEA) is The Voice of Dental Education. Our mission is to lead and support the health professions community in preparing future-ready oral health professionals. Our members include all 79 accredited U.S. and Canadian dental schools, more than 800 allied and advanced dental education programs, more than 50 corporations and approximately 15,000 individuals. Our activities encompass a wide range of research, advocacy, faculty development, meetings and communications, including the esteemed Journal of Dental Education®, as well as the dental school application services ADEA AADSAS®, ADEA PASS®, ADEA DHCAS® and ADEA CAAPID®