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Drugs and Teeth

4 August 2021

You might not think about them every day except for when you are brushing them, but your teeth are really, really important.

Those of us who have suffered through serious dental issues know the pain, the anxiety, the expense and the further health implications. We all need to understand that our mouths are the gateway to our insides, the primary physical interface between the world and your internal body. So integrated is the human body, and so important is the mouth and what’s in it, that tooth and gum disease can even lead to infections in your heart and brain.

Complicating matters is the fact that our teeth haven’t evolved to last 80 or 90 years (more like 40). That’s something that doesn’t happen without intervention.
And what about your smile? Now that’s something you probably take for granted. How critical is it to your self-esteem, your ability to calm, influence and even lead others? A smile is so powerful that even if you fake one you can’t help feeling a little happier - try it!

What if your teeth were significantly decayed, broken, discoloured or missing, enough so that smiling was eliminated from your repertoire of self-expression? That’s devastating for mental and general wellbeing.

This is the case for many people on opiate substitution therapies such as methadone. Not only is there a close association with poverty and homelessness, but methadone (like other opioids) can cause dry mouth which hastens decay. A great many of our clients at First Step, for reasons of childhood poverty, grew up without access to adequate, modern dentistry and have received insufficient dental care. The same goes for children who suffered neglect and abuse, for early-school leavers, for people suffering from addiction, for people who are chronically unemployed or underemployed.

But wait, there’s public dentistry.

Yes, but ‘wait’ is the operative word.

Wait times for public dentistry can approach 3 years, that’s right, 3 years, particularly in rural and regional areas. How motivated would you be to seek the help you need today if you knew it wouldn’t come for 25-30 months, and that might include a fair bit of shame and pain?

Investing in public dentistry is an attempt to redress the historical inability of the health system to look after all its constituents. It’s about human rights, about equity, about dignity, and about what’s right.

At First Step we urge state and federal Departments of Health, and their responsible Ministers and departments, to prioritise increased investment in the availability and quality of public dentistry.

And for those involved, bravo to you! Please continue to treat vulnerable Victorians with the dignity they deserve and keep informed about the trauma people have suffered relating to their whole selves, but particularly to their mouths and to their teeth.

As with so many public health investments 1) it will alleviate pain and suffering, 2) we cannot afford not to invest more, and 3) it’s the right thing to do!

Patrick Lawrence
Chief Executive Officer