DDS alumna explores mental health through debut novel

Marie Moeckel

Marie Moeckel is a force of nature. She’s an artist, a writer, a creator who doesn’t plan to stay in one place too long.

“All my life, I’ve wanted to go, and do, and travel,” she said. “Wild horses couldn’t change my mind.” She’s bold and excited about life.

“There was a side of me that was very alive in college,” she explained. “I was a person with a big personality.”

But that’s not who she was in dental school.

The DDS 2008 graduate from the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry remembers her struggles with fitting in and being herself when she prepared to be a dentist. “There was this feeling of, cut your hair. Stop wearing makeup. You need to be normal. And I did - I obeyed, I got in line.”

The feeling of needing to be “normal” was compounded by Moeckel’s mental health struggles during dental school. Old and outdated misunderstandings of mental health abounded, as did a notion that showing flaws or weakness could damage one’s career.

“I had unlearn a lot of things, and accept that I’m fallible,” she reflected. “If you don’t fail, you can’t be successful - but in dental school, I felt like if I failed, there was no coming back.”

These feelings of loneliness and isolation came to a head when Moeckel chose to sell her Fargo, North Dakota practice. “When you sell your practice, you can’t talk to anyone,” she recalled, expressing the common notion that one should keep news about listing a practice private to avoid losing patients or staff.

Desperate with the need to process, but unable to share with anyone, she turned to writing.

“I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to write something that if someday, someone couldn’t talk to anyone else and needed a book, this could be it? I wanted to throw this out to the universe, and this book could be the voice for them.”

That’s how Ignite was born. Moeckel’s first novel in the Terrible Love Memoirs trilogy was first completed under a pseudonym in 2015 and published through Atmosphere Press on March 1, 2021.

The book chronicles the “premature existential crisis” of dentist Ruby Carlson, who’s struggling to balance her family life with the desire to break free.

Moeckel was deliberate in her choice to make her main character a woman who “happens to be a dentist.”

Recognizing that dentists are infrequently recognized as main characters—and are odd, zany caricatures when they are—Moeckel said she “wanted to write a success story.”

“There is this idea that once you hit a point of desperation, there is no alternative,” she explained. “I wanted to show that you can successfully pivot, you can change.”

Moeckel also hopes that showcasing her creative, free side will inspire others in her profession to be their full selves and combat the myth that dentistry means never showing weakness or difference.

“I want people to feel more at liberty to be themselves,” she explained. “I’d love to see more people showing their personalities and embracing who they are.”

And part of that liberty means confronting the difficulty inherent in the profession. “What we deal with on a day-to-day basis is trauma,” she explained. “We absorb other people’s stresses, and you’re not weak if that takes a toll on you. You have to take care of yourself, and acknowledge the trauma.”

Moeckel hopes that the future of dentistry will look more like this: bringing to light the difficulties and stresses inherent in dentistry, and equipping oral health care professionals with the tools they need to succeed.

That work is ongoing in the School of Dentistry. Sara Johnson, assistant dean of student and resident affairs, knows that “stigma is a barrier to students seeking care.” She encourages all students who are facing academic and mental health struggles to work with her office and their professors to prioritize their mental health.

“We need to destigmatize mental health so students don’t feel alone and will let someone know when they’re struggling,” she said.

At the School of Dentistry, that means creating change in policy and in culture. “We’ve updated policies to explicitly acknowledge that mental health concerns are to be treated just the same as physical health concerns,” she said. “In addition to programs and communications, the school continues to advocate within the health sciences community for more mental health resources for health professions students.”

Wellbeing and mental health resources abound for faculty and staff, too. Elizabeth Marsh, wellbeing champion for the School of Dentistry and human resources generalist, encourages staff and faculty to explore resources like the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing and Virgin Pulse wellbeing program. Marsh and her colleagues frequently refer people to the Employee Assistance Program, which provides eight free sessions with a licensed counselor and includes a 24/7 crisis line where someone will always answer the phone.

Marsh wants faculty and staff to know that she and her team are available for anyone in the School of Dentistry who might need help. “Know that you don’t have to go through this alone,” she says. “Just talk to someone you trust: you trust them for a reason.”

Johnson, too, hopes students know that no one needs to feel alone, or overwhelmed, or hopeless at the School of Dentistry. “It can be hard to know where to start,” she said. “They can reach out to me or another member of the student and resident affairs team, and we can help them identify next steps.”

Mental Health Advocates in the School of Dentistry. Mental Health Advocates are volunteers trained to help students, staff, and faculty find resources and support for wellbeing and have extensive knowledge of campus resources. Mental Health Advocates also support or implement unit-wide strategies designed to promote good mental health. Please note: a Mental Health Advocate is not a therapist, nor are they solely responsible for student mental health. 
Students, staff, and faculty are always welcome to talk to the school’s Mental Health Advocates and get more information. Call, email, or stop by one of their offices.

You will find the most up-to-date information about the status of campus mental health services here.