Why is talking about mental health taboo? 

Despite the worldwide increase in mental health problems, many ailments go undiagnosed. We talked about it with Letizia Mugnai, a couple and family psychologist and psychotherapist in Dubai

mental health

Mental health is often considered a taboo subject, but it is important to talk about it for greater awareness of mental disorders. 

Mental health problems are on the rise worldwide also due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

It is estimated that one in eight people worldwide suffers from a mental health disorder. Despite the high prevalence, many disorders go undiagnosed. In some cases, people are unaware that they have a mental health disorder. In other cases, they may be reluctant to seek help due to the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Why do people with mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression, hide their symptoms? Letizia Mugnai, clinical psychologist and couple and family psychotherapist in Dubai, answers

Letizia Mugnai

Doctor, first of all I would like to ask you: what is mental health?

Mental health refers to our cognitive, behavioral and emotional well-being and how these elements balance with each other.

It is also about the ability to recognize one's own worth, to relate to others, to be flexible and resilient.

In short, it is what allows us to fully live life!

On the contrary, intense reactions, recurring thoughts, maladaptive behaviors have a significant negative impact on our ability to deal with everyday situations and events.

All this can easily lead to the onset of symptoms that are initially mild and then increasingly chronic, which worsen over time if not adequately identified and treated.

What are the most common mental health disorders?

The most common are: anxiety disorders (including panic attacks, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder), depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders (bulimia and anorexia) and substance addiction disorders.

Furthermore, we are witnessing a considerable growth in new addictions, i.e. those that do not include substances, such as addiction to technologies (smartphones, internet, video games), gambling, sex addiction and compulsive shopping.

What are the first signs to watch out for?

In general, when faced with situations or prolonged periods of emotional distress, stress or suffering, there is a widespread tendency to wait for the situation, even if extremely difficult and painful, to “resolve itself over time and improve on its own”.

By adopting this "strategy of common sense" those signals are neglected, the so-called alarm bells that can indicate the presence of a more serious and persistent discomfort or ailment. 

Among the most common indicative signs we find:

  • the change of daily habits;
  • frequent mood swings;
  • neglect one's own needs (physical and emotional);
  • the loss of interest in sociability;
  • an unexplained state of physical discomfort; 
  • the feeling of no longer having control over one's life.

Is this true and why do people with mental health disorders hide their symptoms?

Unfortunately, the idea that "if you go to a psychologist you are crazy" is still widespread. 

This statement is so deeply rooted in the common ideology that people tend to hide their symptoms "it's a moment, it will pass", to ignore them "it's nothing", to mask and justify them "I have always been / or anxious / or sad , rebellious, stressed / or "until the body undergoes a real breakdown.

Mental disorders are frightening, they make sufferers feel vulnerable, judged, different (“what's wrong with me”?) And, as a result, self-esteem and self-worth are compromised. Hence the resistance and distrust in asking for help.

In your opinion, what are the reasons why mental health disorders may go undiagnosed?

To diagnose a mental disorder, the professional must carry out an accurate assessment of the patient's current and past state, his behaviors, his cognitive and emotional operating models, noting the declared symptoms.

Then it will compare the symptoms with a list of specific criteria related to a particular disorder (anxiety, depression, bipolarism, etc.), to determine if the symptoms correspond to that disorder or not.

However, it is not uncommon to find conflicting opinions among professionals who evaluate the same symptomatology, since symptoms can vary and be interpreted differently by the observer.

What is the best way for a correct diagnosis?

Surely consulting a professional is the most suitable solution, even if lately there is a lot of tendency to google every type of symptom to get the exact diagnosis.

Paradoxically, there is a sort of self-diagnosis but no action is taken to improve our well-being! To be clear, it is perceived more acceptable to say "I found myself depressed / anxious" than "I go to the psychologist to fight my anxiety / depression".

Can Early Intervention Make a Huge Difference During a Mental Illness?

Certainly, both for disorders related to the emotional sphere and for those related to personality. The symptom represents a very strong and stable adaptive response that the person puts in place when faced with particularly painful, difficult and often unacceptable events and situations; if identified promptly, the therapeutic intervention increases its effectiveness. For example, in case of anxiety, if the first symptoms (alarm bells) are recognized and investigated in the bud, the chronicization of the symptoms can be avoided and the person's suffering can be considerably reduced.

She is a psychologist and psychotherapist in Dubai. Why the choice to move abroad?

The idea of moving abroad has matured in the last 3 years; some factors, including the increase in economic uncertainty in Italy and the need for a more stable future perspective, were decisive for the choice of the country where I currently live, the United Arab Emirates. Furthermore, my curiosity towards new cultures and the opportunity for personal and above all professional growth have greatly influenced.

Mental disorders can be difficult to diagnose because symptoms can vary greatly from person to person. What is your experience in Italy and Dubai? 

We start from the assumption that the symptoms linked to mental disorders are cataloged according to guiding criteria for diagnosis in texts such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR), L' ICD-10 (Classification of Mental and Behavioral Disorder 10) which classify symptoms and ailments.

So where is the difficulty of diagnosis? It lies in the interpretation of the symptoms made by the professional and in the accuracy of the description of the same by the patients; in fact, some people may consider their symptoms to be “transient, due to the situation” and therefore not sufficiently important to be understood (a very common trend in Italy). 

In the UAE, the focus on mental health has increased considerably in recent years, however, adopting a predominantly psychiatric rather than psychotherapeutic approach. It should be noted that in some cultures mental disorder is not seen as such or is not accepted a priori and therefore not declared; the stigma is so strong that no action is taken and alternative methods of treatment are preferred.

What are your tips for raising public awareness on mental health issues?

In my opinion, information and education represent a highway for raising public awareness about mental health.

Our mind deserves the same attention and care that we reserve for our body; after all it is that irreplaceable part that makes us unique and to which we do not dedicate enough time, care and dedication.

Mental health is not just about mental illness; our emotional balance is severely tested from birth and throughout life to come. Difficult times are extremely common and we don't always manage to understand, manage and overcome them; asking for help is not an admission of personal failure, but it represents an action made of courage and awareness. 

disturbi salute mentale

For greater mental health awareness, investments are needed on all fronts, such as increasing access to quality health care. In 2019, WHO launched the WHO Mental Health Special Initiative (2019-2023): Universal Health Coverage for Mental Health to ensure access to quality care for more than 100 million people by 2023.


World Health Organization