‘I felt guilty if I found a cavity’
Nicola McMillan describes herself as a proud Glaswegian, member of the GDP subcommittee of the LDC, indoor climber, Harry Potter fan and empathetic listener. Here, she tells the story of her own struggles with mental health in the hope of inspiring others to seek help
It started when I was studying for my Highers in fifth year. I was hyperventilating and felt I couldn’t breathe. I had what I now know to be panic attacks.
In first year of university, I struggled again: too much freedom, student loan money and a massive jump in difficulty from school. This led to what I’d now say was mild-moderate depression. I was tired all the time, and felt overwhelmed and prone to tears and frustration.
The next issue was getting a VT place. In 2011, in Glasgow, I didn’t place in the first or second round. I went to Shetland for a clearing interview and was unsuccessful. I genuinely thought of throwing the final year exam so I could stay in university another year and make myself the best candidate for the 2012 VT places.
When English clearing opened, I headed down to Wallasey in the Wirral for my first successful interview. However, during the race for VT positions and the run-up to practical finals I began to suffer from excruciating back pain. I was constantly tired. Living in a new city and working full-time for the first time was hard, and it was taking its toll.
Next I started DF2, six months maxfacs and six months PDS. I struggled with maxfacs. Five days in, I started crying in the middle of the ward in front of the consultant and the other SHOs. I was so stressed and also upset at seeing nice, kind people so unwell. The dark humour used by some of the SHOs and nurses didn’t work for me.
My back problems only got worse and my fiancé begged me to leave the job. But I stuck it out, and some kind nurses and SPRs got me through.
Then it was PDS for six months, then called community. I wasn’t used to its structure where administrators seemed to
be given a lot of power, and I rebelled. Anxiety started when patients did or didn’t show up and I worried I couldn’t manage them. I think it was obvious that I didn’t want to kowtow to the politics that goes on in a hospital setting and I gave a pretty scathing review of maxfacs. I didn’t place as an SHO.
So, to general practice it was. But I lasted just three months in my first practice. The owner and practice manager made my life hell. I sought legal advice then bided my time until I had another position lined up. Not a great start to my associate career.
I stayed at my second associate position for 18 months. But I found it difficult to meet the high expectations of the Edinburgh patient base. They seemed to want private treatment for an NHS fee, and I found that very intimidating.
I was endlessly tired and I started getting so anxious that I would vomit my breakfast in the morning and consider pulling into oncoming traffic on the way to work. Not to kill myself, just to get injured enough so that I wouldn’t have to be a dentist for a bit.
I started seeing a life coach, also a dentist. She tried to assure me that it wasn’t my fault if my patients didn’t brush their teeth. But in my thinking, we’re professionals and we should be persuasive enough to convince patients of the importance of brushing their teeth daily. With that logic, it’s our fault they ever need treatment. I felt guilty if
I found a cavity.
I locumed in a lovely practice for six months before starting in my current job. But there have been times, for personal reasons, that I have felt lonely and isolated. I knew I was fighting depression. The staff were kind and would ask if I was ok. But I was embarrassed. I felt it would come across as laziness and sometimes it was all I could do to drag myself to work in the morning.
I love being a dentist. Sometimes I hate the way patients treat us, but I truly enjoy my job. In the past year I’ve thrown myself into helping other people through Mental Dental. I’m honoured to be a part of it. It’s not been without its challenges. People are capable of saying some fairly dreadful things. Even in this day and age, and among fellow care professionals, there are those who simply do not understand or have any empathy for those who have to cope with their demons.
I have had some pretty unpleasant experiences online. But we believe that by providing people with a forum, we are going some way to helping. We would always suggest that people who are suffering seek professional help, the sooner the better.
My GP, my fiancé and friends have helped me through some difficult times and for that I’m truly grateful. I believe in the kindness of our profession. Dentists will give up their time willingly to help others in need. What more can you ask for?
Words: David Cameron, Stewart McRobert, Tim Power