Exploring Dental Students’ Perceptions of Mental Illness to Address Unmet Needs: A Preliminary Study

Michelle Zechner1, *, Vaishali Singhal1, 2, Ann Murphy1, Sean Karyczak1
1 Department of Phychiatric Rehabilitation and Counseling Professions, NJ 08854, USA
2 Department of Phychiatric Dentistry and Community Health, NJ 07101, USA

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© 2022 Zechner et al.

open-access license: This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License (CC-BY 4.0), a copy of which is available at: This license permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

* Address correspondence to this author at the Department of Phychiatric Rehabilitation and Counseling Professions, NJ 08854, USA; Tel: (908)889-3154; Fax: (909)889-2701; E-mail:



There is little information about dental students’ perceptions about providing care to people with serious mental illnesses (SMI), despite the significant oral health challenges of this population. Objective: This brief report aims to explore gaps in dental students’ knowledge and skills for providing oral health care to people with SMI, along with their attitudes about working with this underserved population.


Post-graduate dental students in the United States at a large northeastern university were asked to provide feedback and responses to 5 open-ended questions prior to an educational module about working with people with SMI, and 22 anonymous responses were received. Qualitative content analysis was used to code responses using independent coding and consensus meetings.


Dental students expressed concerns about working with this population and felt unprepared to provide services to them. Seven themes were identified and coded into three primary categories: Knowledge, Skills and Attitudes. Codes representing dental student knowledge gaps included mental health literacy and professional role clarification. Skill deficits were coded as an adaptation of dental care practices, communication skills, crisis management, and management of care. Attitudes were coded as beliefs about people with SMI.


Additional attention to mental illness in dental education could assist future professionals in their skills and knowledge to address the extensive unmet oral health needs of people with SMI.

Keywords: Underserved population, Oral health education, Serious mental illness, Post-graduate education, Qualitative content analysis, Oral health.