Thirty to forty years ago, the highest rate of suicides among professionals was incurred by dentists. For over a decade, dentists repeatedly topped the list. It wasn’t difficult to understand the reasons. For the most part, dentists were viewed as “rejects”, particularly in their own eyes. During that period of time, dentists, generally speaking, were individuals whose primary career choice was medicine. Those who, for whatever reason, weren’t accepted into a medical school often wound up going to dental school. The result was simple. Their sense of self-worth was severely damaged by the failure they felt they had experienced. Many of them later applied for and went to medical school, but the majority of them wound up being dentists. In their eyes, they were second-rate doctors, whose prestige was considerably lower, whose income was far less and whose sense of accomplishment and professional image were inferior to that of an M.D.’s. Viewing themselves as failures contributed to them feeling trapped in a career they didn’t respect or desire. For many of them, the image was intolerable and the only way they knew to escape the trap they saw themselves destined to live in was to escape life by committing suicide.
During that period of several decades, dentists tended to compete with and judge themselves in comparison with physicians. Consequently, they took no sense of worth from who they were, what they did or their own accomplishments. Instead, they perceived themselves as inferior because their evaluation of self stemmed from an external comparison with others, as opposed to an internal appreciation for who and what they were.
Today, if you look at what has transpired in the world of dentistry, you will see tremendous change. The role that initially implied “reject” is now frequently sought after as a primary choice. However, the same growth isn’t evident in medicine. It has become a business, governed, to a very great extent, by the insurance companies, Medicare and the government. One doctor after another can be heard saying, “Practicing medicine isn’t fun any more. Our image has been tainted. Our capacity to make money has been diminished and the freedom to practice medicine as we see fit is something of the past.” Not so for dentistry. It has been constricted, to a much lesser degree, by the changes in the medical system. The practice of dentistry today is far more lucrative than years ago. Dentists not only have the opportunity to earn more, but to work a five-day week, have few, if any night calls and to be booked up, in many instances, for months in advance. By virtue of that, practicing dentistry affords dentists a way of life that enables them to have more time to interact with their spouses and children and is, therefore, far more compatible with maintaining a healthy family life.
I should add that dental schools have instituted far more classes in business management, running an office, billing, dealing with employees and other pragmatic aspects of running a practice, than any other professional training programs. Few, if any, of the medical schools, law schools, psychology or social work programs even remotely consider courses of this nature. As a result, a dentist leaves school ready to start a practice and often feels more competent to run his practice professionally. It’s apparent that dentists have found their own identity. They needn’t and don’t compete with physicians as they did in the past. And surprise of all surprises, the rate of suicide in dentists has shrunk to normal levels.
The story and facts are interesting in themselves, but you might wonder, why is Ed Reitman writing about it? What does it have to do with psychology and/or people in general? My answer: a great deal.
Let me explain: Many of you, in your own way, feel trapped by your lives, jobs, income level, problems with your spouse, children, or marriage. The majority of you stay where you are, feel disgruntled, blame others or the fickle finger of fate and either suffer in silence, or constantly complain but, in either case, you do nothing to alter your situation. Many of you believe that, if you could only trade in what you have for something or someone new, you’d change for the positive. Others of you feel, “If I had more money, a bigger house, a better job, or a new sports car, I’d feel good about me.” But, I strongly doubt it. It didn’t work for dentists and it’s unlikely to work for you. However, there are many valuable lessons you can learn from this story. Three basic and very important ones are:
1. It’s pretty clear that, if you compete with anyone else, you never win. The reason is, you start out questioning your own adequacy in light of the fact that you’re competing to begin with. Even more clear is the fact that, no matter how much you excel or possess, you will eventually come across someone who is faster, stronger, smarter or richer than you.
2. “Emulating a doctor”, changing your children or getting rid of your spouse in no way alters you. Recall you and your dissatisfaction was and is the problem to begin with. Therefore, the one you have to alter and/or take charge of, is you.
3. The way to feel good about yourself doesn’t come about as a result of how you stack up with others, it comes about as a result of how you feel about yourself. Increasing your self image, your value of self and your perception of self is the key to eventually feeling adequate, enjoying life and valuing your life, rather than wanting to end it.
That being the case, if you’re unhappy with who you are or where you are, before deciding to do anything rash, look to your primary problem, i.e., yourself. It is only after learning to live comfortably with you that you can adequately judge whether you need to change where you are, who you are with, where you want to go, or if any change is needed at all.
Most of all, do something different. Don’t stay in the rut you feel trapped by today or complain about it for the rest of your tomorrows.