Thought Leadership

African Countries Can Take a Preventive Approach to Mental Health by Prioritising Oral Health

4 Mins read

By Adekemi Adeniyan and Maymunah Kadiri (Lead Writers)

You are not fully dressed without a smile.” This age-old adage is often used to encourage people to show their happiness and positivity through a smile. While there is no doubt that a smile can be a powerful way to communicate positivity, the message behind this statement is deeper than it may first appear.

The act of smiling goes beyond a simple expression. It holds the power to improve our physical and mental well-being. Smiling plays a vital role in enhancing our overall health by reducing stress, lowering blood pressure and boosting our immune system. Smiling also releases endorphins, natural mood-boosting chemicals that alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Beyond its physical and mental health benefits, a smile plays a crucial role in shaping our social interactions and relationships as it conveys a wide range of positive emotions, fostering meaningful connections with others. This nonverbal signal can help build trust and rapport, making it easier for people to connect and engage on a deeper level.

However, not everyone has the privilege of being able to smile easily. Poor oral health affects a person’s willingness to smile. It leads to a variety of issues, such as cavities, gum disease and bad breath, which can negatively impact one’s self-esteem and confidence, in addition to increasing the risk of physical disease, including infections, heart disease and cancers

Society expects us to exhibit a cheerful and optimistic demeanour. This can be particularly demoralising for individuals with bad oral health. Therefore, prioritising good oral health is imperative for physical wellness, mental health, and overall quality of life.

The link between oral and mental health

There is compelling evidence of the link between oral health and mental well-being. In Nigeria, young people with poor oral health are more likely to have suicidal thoughts compared to those with good oral health. Individuals with periodontal disease — a condition where the gums and supporting structures of the teeth become infected and damaged — have a 37% higher risk of developing anxiety and other serious mental illnesses. Individuals with chronic bad breath are also more likely to experience social anxiety and low self-esteem when compared to those without bad breath.

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

Every year in Nigeria, oral cancers claim the lives of 764 individuals. This devastating disease has a significant impact on the mental health of individuals, families, and communities throughout the country. 

Many people living in rural areas do not have access to oral health services, and those who do, often cannot afford them. Additionally, there is a lack of education on oral health and preventive care, which leads to higher rates of dental disease. There is also a shortage of trained dental professionals. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that there are only 3.2 dentists for every 100,000 individuals in Africa, less than a tenth of the ratio present in other parts of the world.

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

Yet, oral health is often overlooked, particularly in Africa, where access to dental care is limited and oral health education is lacking.

Mental health issues are on the rise in Africa, with depression and anxiety being the most common disorders. Yet, these issues are not addressed adequately. By prioritising oral health, African countries can also help take a preventative approach to mental health.

Prioritising mental health through oral health

As oral health and mental health professionals, we recognise that we need a comprehensive approach to address the link between oral and mental health. We have seen promising results by incorporating mobile dentistry, oral health education for children utilising art and storybooks, and policy advocacy to improve access to oral health. By bringing these critical components together, we aim to reduce the burden of dental disease and improve access to vital oral health care services.

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

Prioritising mental health through oral health requires a comprehensive approach involving various strategies and collaborations to develop sustainable solutions addressing the unique challenges of underserved communities. To prioritise mental health through oral health, the following steps should be taken:

  • Ministries of education and oral health professionals should integrate oral health education into schools and community initiatives to raise awareness about its impact on overall well-being and prevent oral health issues that can contribute to mental health problems.
  • Ministries of health should invest in oral health infrastructure, training more professionals, and ensuring affordable and quality services to provide timely treatment for oral health issues, reducing the risk of associated mental health problems.
  • Collaboration between oral health and mental health professionals is also crucial. Professionals should work together to develop integrated care models for comprehensive prevention and treatment.

By implementing these recommendations and fostering cooperation among various stakeholders, we can strive to address the interconnection between oral health and mental well-being. Ultimately, through these efforts, we can create a society that values and prioritises both oral and mental health, promoting overall wellness and improving the lives of individuals and communities.

Dr. Adekemi Adeniyan is a rural dentist breaking down barriers to oral health for underserved communities in Nigeria. She is the founder and executive director of Dentalcare Foundation. She is Senior New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute and a Senior Atlantic Fellow for Health Equity at George Washington University. You can follow her on Twitter @PstDrKemi

Dr. Maymunah Kadiri is the MD/CEO of Pinnacle Medical Services and Author of Deep Expression She is an Aspen New Voices and an Atlantic Fellow for Health Equity at George Washington University. She is Africa’s leading voice for mental health in normalising mental health conversations. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @iamdrmay

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