When the UN crowned Finland the world´s happiest nation last month for the second year running, there were still quite a few eyebrows raised. How could this Nordic country, better known for its harsh weather and high suicide rate, be the world´s happiest?
Although international comparisons are imperfect due to holes in the data, in 1990 official statistics did indeed indicate that Finland´s suicide rate was the second highest in the world, behind Hungary.
But Professor Timo Partonen at Finland´s National Institute for Health and Welfare, warns against the temptation to blame the problem on Finland´s dark, cold climate, or its bleak, concrete, postwar towns.
“If you are depressed in any place in the world, you bear a similar risk of suicide,” Partonen told AFP.
“I think that the social connections and how willing you are to seek help and receive help are the most important things here.”
Suicides in Finland have now fallen to less than half of 1990 levels. That is thanks largely to a decade-long public health drive to improve treatment and support for those at risk, as well as to make media reporting of the issue more responsible.
These days it is also much more socially acceptable for Finns, especially men, to open up about their feelings, says Partonen.
“Now it´s easier to talk about it if you are depressed for example, and it´s easier to get treated and have adequate treatment as well.”
According to the World Health Organization, Finland´s suicide rate is now 22nd highest in the world, lower than the US and one spot higher than Australia.
Even today however, many Finns still describe themselves as taciturn and prone to melancholy — and admit to eyeing public displays of joyfulness with suspicion.