More than a decade after Arto Paasilinna’s grim observation in his 1990 book Collective Suicide, Finland’s suicide rate is still twice as high as the European Union average and surpassed only by Japan and the countries of Eastern Europe.
Health officials point the finger at depression and alcohol abuse as the main factors in most suicides, but locals say life in a country where the thick of winter brings seemingly
never-ending darkness to some regions, also takes its toll.
“I’ve often thought about the climate here, that Finns and Swedes, at least in the northern parts, live on the brink of civilisation,” said Jorn Donner, a prolific writer, director and former Finnish member of the European Parliament.
“Most suicides do happen in spring, after waiting out the long winter,” he added.
But in neighbouring Sweden, with equally long, dark and cold winters, just under 12 men and women per 100,000 people took their own lives in 2000, compared to 21.5 per 100,000 in Finland and 10.2 in the EU as a whole, data from the World Health Organisation shows.
The difference could be related to patterns of alcohol consumption, said Erkki Isometsa, head of mood disorders research at Finland’s National Public Health Institute and joint author of a 10-year Finnish suicide prevention study which ended in 1996.
He pointed to similarities between Finland and the Baltic states, which shares its high levels of alcoholism and suicide rates.
Binge drinking continues to be a
“If you look at the European map you find that we are closer to the Baltic countries than Sweden and Norway are… The factor that may have some influence is the pattern of drinking heavily,” Isometsa said.
A Russian grand duchy for more than a century until 1917, Finland straddled the East and West during the Cold War.
It has quickly evolved from an agricultural society to a model welfare state, home of mobile phone maker Nokia and topping the World Economic Forum’s list of competitive economies.
Finnish alcohol habits have also become more European, but binge drinking remains a problem. The national drink remains Koskenkorva, a type of vodka.
“The last quarter century has brought great changes. But there are still a lot of people who drink their Friday and Saturday booze. And they drink a lot, a whole lot,” said Donner.
One recent Saturday in November, relatives of suicide victims gathered in a park outside a downtown church to hang 1095 black ribbons under the bare tree branches, one for each suicide in 2002.
“Depression is a killer disease. I know because of my husband. It’s been 15 years and still I cry every time I talk about it”
Leena Tammer was one of about 1000 people who visited the park that day. Taking a break from tying ribbons onto a large net hung from the trees, the grey-haired widow talked about why she was there.
“It’s about understanding. Depression is a killer disease. I know because of my husband. It’s been 15 years and still I cry every time I talk about it,” she said, wiping away a tear.
Some experts said the increasingly common prescription of anti-depressants could be saving the lives of people like
Tammer’s late spouse.
Since the early 1990s, suicides in Finland have dropped by almost a third, but the scientific community is divided as to why.
“We have sort of a joke about this, that when more old women take anti-depressants, fewer young men kill themselves,” said Maila Upanne, development head at Finland’s health research and development agency.
“We know we have a declining tendency, but there are many competing explanations.”
The answer may possibly lie with Arto Paasilinna: “But the Finns are a people of fighters. One doesn’t give up. Time and time again, one rises against the tyrant.”