How Mental Health and Oral Health are Connected

If Michael Glick, D.M.D., had his way, every person who receives mental health care would be referred to a dentist. Oral health and mental health are closely connected. For example, people who have anxiety or depression tend to neglect self-care tasks like brushing their teeth twice a day. This impacts the overall health of their teeth and their mouth. In addition, the medications often prescribed to treat these conditions can cause dry mouth, which leads to cavities and periodontal disease.

For the better part of a decade, Dr. Glick, executive director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Integrative Global Oral Health, has been advocating for dentists and the public to focus on oral health instead of dental health.

“Medical schools spend less than 15 minutes of their four-year curriculum on oral health, treating the mouth as an entry rather than a mirror of what’s happening in the body,” he says. But oral health “is not just about disease. Oral health goes beyond what happens to your teeth — it affects other aspects of your life.”

Oral health includes a person’s ability to comfortably speak, smile, chew, and swallow, as well as social and psychological attributes that can affect quality of life, Dr. Glick says.

He asks, “Can you work at a front desk if you’re self-conscious about your smile? If you have missing teeth or bad breath, is it making you depressed or causing social anxiety so that you avoid certain jobs or social situations?”

A Portrait by the Numbers

According to researchers, people with severe mental health conditions are almost three times as likely to lose teeth than people in the general population. Nearly two-thirds of people diagnosed with depression report toothaches, and half of all clinically depressed individuals rate the condition of their teeth as fair or poor. In addition, people with substance use disorder and eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia often have high levels of tooth decay, worn enamel, or gum disease.

Signs of Stress

At the same time, people under stress may grind their teeth at night and get headaches from temporomandibular disorder (TMD) — a painful condition involving the joint that connects the jaw to the skull.

Fortunately, dentistry is broadening from a singular focus on treating tooth issues to providing preventive care and support for good oral health. Regular dental care, good nutrition, and stress-reduction practices can keep people on a healthy track, even if they are experiencing a mental health challenge.

“For many people, oral health hasn’t been emphasized, yet it’s simple and readily accessible,” Dr. Glick says. If you have concerns about your teeth or your overall oral health, talk to your dentist.

For more information about mental health, self-care strategies, and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind.

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