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Staff Stories Centre for Addiction
and Mental Health

Restoring Smiles and Rebuilding Lives

“My mouth is full of decayed teeth and my soul of decayed ambitions.” – James Joyce

If eyes are the gateways to the soul, then teeth are a record of the peaks and valleys of a person’s life.

“There’s such a strong connection between the health of one’s teeth and a person’s mental health because dental health has everything to do with caring for yourself,” says Dr. Paul Zung, Senior Dentist at CAMH’s Dental Clinic. He explains that teeth are a cumulative record of a person’s life, recording the times when people are healthy and the times they stop caring for themselves, like when a patient has a psychotic episode.

James with Dr. Zung who helped to him smile again.Dr. Zung and CAMH client James Bennett.

With his team of two other dentists and a hygienist, Dr. Zung helps to restore the teeth, smiles and confidence of patients at CAMH. Established in the late 1800s, the dental clinic meets a basic, yet essential need often overlooked.

James Bennett is a CAMH client and began his journey to recovery at CAMH over two years ago when he sought treatment for addiction. He is now a client of the mood and anxiety service. “I had a good life, a great job and then I began to have serious problems, and that road led me to life on the street,” James explains. He got into a fight and his front teeth were knocked out. “I can’t tell you how people look at you, what they think about you or feel about you when you have missing teeth.”

But then he was referred to the dental clinic and Dr. Zung started to re-build what James had lost. By putting in a new front tooth, Dr. Zung helped to transform how James looked at himself as well how others saw him. James remembers the moment he saw himself in the mirror after the procedure. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw my reflection. As soon as my tooth was put back in, I was smiling, laughing. Dr. Zung gave me back my smile, my confidence and a piece of me that I thought had been lost. It’s something simple that a lot of people take for granted but it means so much to me.”  

The clinic treats the neediest patients who often have difficulty getting care in dental offices because of behavioural problems or the severity of their dental condition. The clients can be challenging to treat because they might suffer from anxiety or other mental illnesses that make the whole process more difficult. Earning their trust is key.

“Going into the mouth is like being invited into somebody’s house. You need to be a good guest so you can be invited back because they trust you,” he says. “When I am able to do that, they open wide for me and say, ‘Come on in, I need help.’”

In some cases, the amount of dental repair is overwhelming and people cannot afford to pay for treatment. Other than the clinic at CAMH, the bulk of this work is done in private offices by good-hearted dentists who know how to win trust and work fast. It’s truly a labour of love and that’s what drew Dr. Zung to CAMH.

“I didn’t want to spend the bulk of my working day cleaning teeth that were already clean,” he says. “The difference between the typical private patient and my clients is I feel my skills are best used by doing the full mouth rehabilitation work I do here.”

And this approach to providing compassionate care through dentistry is what he hopes to pass on to the next generation of dentists. As a clinical instructor of prosthodontics at the Faculty of Dentistry at the University of Toronto, he passes on his skills and his philosophy of serving those in need to students.

Hayley Faulkner helped organize a seminar on mental health with Dr. Zung and eventually came to CAMH to learn more. “It’s a population that’s certainly under-treated,” she says. “And so as students, we have an opportunity to see that treating patients with mental illness is not as intimidating as we might have thought and we might feel more omfortable with treating them once we graduate and go into practice.”

Minseon Jenn Kim has not only shadowed Dr. Zung but has treated patients at CAMH, from assisting on a crown prep to consulting for a denture. “It is more challenging work, I believe but it’s also more rewarding,” says the third year student who emphasizes the need for health-related dentistry. “While implant and bridges are important, I could see what a change dental work that is really necessary can have on a person’s life in the clinic at CAMH.”

And those future dentists are lining up to gain experience treating CAMH clients. The hope is to establish a dental community outreach program to give students an opportunity to use their skills to make a difference in patient’s lives. That is what Dr. Zung considers his calling. “We need to serve people at the points of greatest need where our lives intersect theirs,” he says.

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