From dental health to mental

niall campbell

Dr Niall Campbell speaks about his journey from dentistry to psychology

Dentistry is a highly skilled practice which is constantly evolving, both technologically and clinically. The proliferating degree of specialisation within the field means that lateral moves by dental practitioners to other careers are not as evident as in other professions. However, Dr Niall Campbell has bucked that trend, being a former dentist who now works as both a marketing consultant and a psychotherapist on the clinical team at DARA, one of Asia’s leading luxury drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres.

Niall believes that the talent pool within the dental profession is deeper than we might think, and dentists have a tendency to underestimate how well they could fare in other arenas. He took time away from the refurbishment of DARA’s new marketing headquarters in downtown Bangkok to tell us about how he made the jump from dentistry to the luxury rehab industry.

From QUB to Scotland

Dr Campbell graduated with distinctions in the practice of dentistry and conservative dentistry from Queens University Belfast in 2006. He said he still looks back on his undergraduate years with great fondness: “It was just a brilliant time. I was lucky enough to come through with a really solid group of guys. We are great friends to this day and catch up regularly. The class was quite small – about 40 or so, which meant that the tutelage from the consultants was very ‘hands on’ and they made themselves accessible. I think we all benefitted clinically from that.

“We were also very competitive, whether it was who could nutmeg who on the football pitch, or who could do a better crown prep, it didn’t matter. I think we all pushed each other forward, because I’m proud to say that my group of friends from that class are all doing really well professionally, as well as in life, more generally.”

Niall then moved first to Edinburgh and then Glasgow to complete his general professional training in oral surgery and general dentistry, before moving into mixed practice in Scotland. He said this was a fairly transitional phase for him both personally and professionally: “It was 2008, the global financial crash had recently hit and I saw the writing on the wall for the previous era of dentistry. I didn’t see how I could provide the type of quality care I wanted to for patients, while still maintaining the type of lifestyle I loved.

“I remember driving back into Glasgow on the M8 from an overly busy day, stuck in a massive rush-hour tailback. It was pitch black and the mid-winter rain was horizontally smashing against the windshield, and I just thought, ‘this is not the life for me’. The next day I handed my notice in, leased my apartment and ordered a visa online for Australia.

“I set my sights on Western Australia, because contacts had told me the mining boom there was creating opportunities that simply didn’t exist in the UK at that time. Within the month I had a job in private practice in Perth and was watching the sun set over the Indian Ocean through the concertina windows of my local pub – the Ocean Beach Hotel in Cottesloe. While my heart will always be in Ireland, I think a lot of Paddies fresh off the boat can relate to that first day where you think, ‘this is more like it’.”

Down under dentistry

Niall relished the longer appointment times synonymous with dentistry in Australia. He said: “I remember my first day there and seeing my appointment book with 60 to 75 mins for a standard check-up, and as much time as you wanted procedurally. The fact that dentistry in Australia is traditionally fairly expensive meant that people were much more oriented towards prevention, and also the economy was going well in Perth due to the mining boom at that time, so when presented with comprehensive treatment plans, there was less ‘tyre-kicking’ so to speak.”

It was during this time that Niall discovered his area of interest which would ultimately lead him to make the jump to mental health – working with dentally anxious patients. The reduction in time pressures allowed him to properly desensitise nervous patients to dental treatment and he decided to utilise his new-found luxury of time by booking appointments in a completely different way.

“I trained my front desk to triage and book in new and existing patients using the Modified Dental Anxiety Scale,” he explained “and appointment times were based primarily on this as opposed to what procedure was to be performed. I also ‘staged’ the day so more technical work would be done efficiently with co-operative patients in the morning, while long appointment times would be reserved for consults or small chunks of treatment with nervous patients in the afternoon.

“I had a suspicion that given time and proper desensitisation, people who would otherwise supposedly ‘need’ to be referred for sedation would drastically improve (in terms of co-operation), but even I was amazed at how rapidly my 3pm patients became the first patients of the day!”

As word spread, Niall became inundated with increasingly more nervous patients referred by other dentists, and he realised he needed to further improve his communication skill-set to deal with these sometimes incredibly challenging patients.

Overcoming prejudices

“I did some research and found exactly what I was looking for – an intensive year-long graduate diploma in medical hypnosis offered through the Australian Society of Clinical Hypnosis. It was exclusively for registered health professionals, which gave it the credibility I was after.”

When Niall got there he realised he had found his tribe. He said: “The first day on the course I was very apprehensive as I was outside my dentistry comfort zone. I was afraid that we were all going to be given a compulsory shawl and I made a deal with myself that if anybody started chanting, burning incense, or produced a crystal I was out of there.

“My ignorance and prejudices about the mental health sciences were fairly quickly shot down when the group introduced themselves to each other. They were all clinical psychologists, psychiatrists or GPs with a special interest in mental health. The minimum university requirement to be a fully registered clinical psychologist in Australia is six years, plus a further two years vocational training, so I was suitably humbled in terms of both qualifications and knowledge.

“The more I learned, the more I realised the depth of my ignorance about why people behave the way they do, and so I read voraciously around the topic and psychology more generally – I was hooked.”

Dovetailing

Niall found the skills he was learning from the course to be game-changing. He said: “When I plugged the hypnosis back into the treatment of nervous and phobic clients, I was blown away by how effective it was. Prior to the course, I had been working with a sedationist for one day a week on average, and was even considering doing a conscious sedation course in Sydney, but it got to the point where I didn’t need their services anymore and saw no reason to go down that path myself.

“I had been a huge sceptic of hypnosis (and psychotherapy more generally) prior to the course, but the scientific evidence of its effectiveness and my own anecdotal experience made me a convert. Clients who had been successfully treated for their dental phobias with hypnosis started enquiring as to whether it would work for their other issues such as weight loss or smoking, as well as other phobias like fear of flying and public speaking. I knew I was on to something.”

It was then that Niall set up his business, Prime Hypnosis – a counselling service specialising in clinical hypnosis aimed at individuals and companies looking to improve their lives by changing their mindsets. He started seeing people and groups for a whole range of issues, and the business quickly grew enough for him to cut his dentistry hours in half. Niall refers to this process as ‘dovetailing’.

“I think there is a belief among dentists that it is ‘all or nothing’ in terms of career transitions, when nothing could be further from the truth. We tend to be our own bosses more than other people so there is little to stop us dropping a few days initially to try out different ventures. There are plenty of other ways to make a living. If things go well and you are so inclined, then by all means make the jump completely, but you don’t even have to go that far to be successful in other areas. Ed O’Flaherty built up and sold a whiskey company for millions while still working as a dentist, and Heimir Hallgrimsson helped mastermind the Icelandic soccer team’s recent dismantling of England while drilling and filling on the side. You just need to back yourself.”

Ongoing education

As momentum increased in his hypnosis and counselling business, Niall started to see more and more complex psychological cases, especially in the field of addiction, and two things became apparent; he was ready to transition permanently into the field of mental health, but he wished to pursue further postgraduate studies in psychology at the same time. This constituted one of the busiest times in his professional life.

“Psychotherapy is no different to dentistry in the sense that as you get better at it, you tend to get referred increasingly more complex cases,” said Niall.

“It was a significant step up from helping people stop smoking cigarettes to stop smoking meth for example, but I absolutely relished the challenge. I realised that I wanted to be a category authority in the area of addiction, which of course necessitated further postgraduate study. I wanted to do this while simultaneously growing my counselling business and gaining more knowledge and credibility in the field of mental health.”

Flexibility, creativity and self-determination are values that resonate with Niall and his ongoing education had to fall in line with that. He briefly toyed with the idea of going back to study medicine with a view to being a psychiatrist, but felt this pathway would box him in too profoundly and for too long. He therefore decided to pursue an accelerated online programme in postgraduate psychology through Monash University in Melbourne.

He said: “The course was a godsend as it was completely online. It gave me an extraordinary amount of flexibility and autonomy, and didn’t interrupt my earning potential, or significantly curtail my lifestyle. Whether you are relaxing in a hammock while listening to a downloaded lecture on your smartphone or asking a question at a webinar through your laptop in a coffee shop, it’s just a better option than a traditional university education in my opinion. I wasn’t ‘tied to the quadrangle’ so to speak.”

Niall’s love of integrative technology goes much deeper than education. He believes that, as the world becomes exponentially more complex, various silos of expertise are going to have to start talking to each other, and he thinks dentistry and its professionals should be involved in this collaborative new world.

“In psychology at the minute for example, some of the most interesting developments are coming from the collaboration of mental health clinicians with Silicon Valley experts. For example, Skip Rizzo is utilising the exponential improvements in immersive technology to desensitise war veterans suffering with PTSD using virtual reality re-enactments of traumatic memories. The way of thinking incumbent in learning to become a practising dentist – a very ‘results-oriented’ approach – I think could help in seemingly unrelated fields in a similar way. I know it has served me well in cutting through some of the more ‘overly subjective’ information present in certain corners of mental health.”

Heading for rehab

As Niall’s passion for helping people overcome their drug and alcohol addictions grew, he began to realise how comprehensively the issue of addiction permeated his clients’ lives.

“I just knew that regular appointments with myself and various other suitably qualified professionals, while being undeniably helpful for addicts, wasn’t enough for the worst affected. They needed a more holistic and total approach.

“When the opportunity came up to work at a reputable and high-end residential rehab in Asia, I therefore jumped at the chance. I was lucky enough to be joined at DARA by my fiancée Hannah, who is an excellent counsellor well on her way to being a clinical psychologist, and someone I can honestly say I look up to.”

After working on the clinical team for a period of time, Niall progressed to the marketing side of the business. The ability to blend his love of technology with his creativity and clinical knowledge proved to be a useful combination. He is loving his current set-up: “I feel tremendously lucky at the moment, because I work directly with our very progressive CEO Sebastian and a very talented and growing marketing team. Also, when I am not travelling with work I split my time between our marketing HQ in Bangkok, but I am based on our resort facility on the tropical island of Koh Chang, so I pinch myself every morning because I get all the benefits of resort living. Our excellent housekeeping and on-site culinary teams mean you don’t have to lift a finger really, and we have great pool and gym facilities to enjoy also. We deliberately set things up this way so clients can focus 100 per cent on their recovery, but it doesn’t exactly hurt staff morale at the same time!”

Dentistry’s mental health

When asked what his thoughts are on the state of mental health and addiction in his old profession, Niall thinks the jury is still out. He said: “The truth is, there really isn’t enough good data to say conclusively one way or another if addiction and all of its feeder conditions like depression and anxiety constitute a disproportionate issue in the dental workforce when compared to other similar jobs.

“On one hand, the old chestnuts of high suicide rates and IV drug abuse in dentistry are exaggerated, but on the other hand all the ingredients are there for problems to eventually emerge – stressful job, lots of money, lots of financial risk and responsibility, and lots of easy access to mind-altering drugs. In my anecdotal experience, our clients at DARA tend to be very successful and high functioning people, and health professionals make up more than their fair share of our clientele.

“Even I have been astounded at how addiction can emerge in every type of person, especially high achievers, so it’s perfectly feasible that many dentists could be hiding extreme addictions in plain sight, but that’s a discussion for another day.”

Finding a life purpose

Last year, Niall gave a lecture about mental health and its link to life extension at the World Congress of Psychosomatic Medicine at the SECC in Glasgow. He recalls how the event marked the end of a chapter for him. He said: “During the talk I touched on the Japanese concept of ‘Ikigai’ which translates roughly as one’s ‘life purpose’, basically the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning. It was quite a validating moment because I realised that I left Glasgow all those years ago not really knowing what my Ikigai was and here I was back in the same city talking about the very thing that I was at that moment realising – that my life purpose was to help people improve their quality of life by encouraging them to attend to their mental health.

“How that actually transpires at any given stage is a dynamic thing, and perhaps that is the way of our modern professional world. As Steve Jobs famously said, ‘you can’t join the dots looking forwards’.”

As for the future, Niall is very optimistic. He said: “What the future holds for me I’m not sure, but the field of addiction is both multidimensional and deeply important and therefore I’m professionally andphilosophically enthralled by it. I think DARA is one of the most evidence-based rehabs out there. The work we are doing can be literally life or death for people. I’m also looking into how new ‘wearable’ and virtual reality technology can be better recruited to improve recovery statistics from addiction. And, in addition, I’m getting married next year in Phuket.

“When I factor this in with how rapidly we are expanding our operation internationally (and all the usual conference commitments), I’d say I’ll be fairly busy.”

Niall may have finished peering into mouths, but it would seem he will be peering into minds for some time to come.