Dental pain is what drives victims to seek help. Those who have suffered domestic abuse with loose teeth and fractured wrists put up with the pain of broken bones and bruises. But the pain in their mouths leads them to surgeries – where dentists have been trained to support, intervene, document, treat their injuries and refer on to specialist services. All in all, they do a pretty amazing job.
So many of the people I see in justice and in recovery have been left a legacy in their mouths of what has happened to them. Broken and missing teeth, decay from methadone use, receding gums, grinding teeth from stress, facial pain, mouth injuries from sexual assault and more insidious problems which go undiagnosed such as oral cancers. I know so many colleagues and friends in recovery who speak with their hand in front of their mouth, so embarrassed are they by their teeth.
I am hugely lucky to know amazing dentists who have transformed the lives of women and men, by amazing dental surgery. They’ve given people confidence, the ability to converse, to be expressive in photos and to smile. It has led to people gaining employment and interacting with those around them in a completely different manner.
The dentists take huge care with people who have been through so much trauma, with patience, perseverance and skill. Many patients are terrified. The often invasive nature of dentistry; loss of control, lying back in chairs, the closeness of the dentist, can resurface all their negative experiences at the hands of others.
I know personally at a low level of the impact of this. I was hit in the mouth by a drunk man whilst working as a nurse in an emergency room many years ago. I watched with increasing dismay as the root died and the tooth turned greyer, requiring a veneer. I remember how self-consciousness I felt. I felt liberated by the work of my dentist.
I know too of young people whose lives have been characterised by a move into care, through successive families where often dentistry has been an afterthought. Great dentistry is preventative; requiring us to teach tooth brushing, no rinsing of toothpaste and regular check-ups to stop a problem before it starts. When these young care experienced people are in adulthood, I truly understand their anguish that they didn’t get the braces they needed as kids, or the filling that would have saved a tooth. They weren’t encouraged to brush in mornings or at night meaning that they are facing more radical treatment or have many missing teeth – and they feel angry. The treatment is often classified as ‘cosmetic’, which makes it sound vain but in truth it’s life affirming and necessary.
There are many services I can’t wait to resume as lockdown eases – the dentist would be near the top of my list, and for so many others I know who need their smile back.
Karyn McCluskey is chief executive of Community Justice Scotland