A few days ago, the journal "Science" published a report claiming to make an objective list of the United States by happiness. Actually, what the report did was claim that objective criteria of happiness would match up with people's subjective self-reporting of happiness. The actual paper might have gone into more detail than this, but once a Top Ten list of happy states was released, the national press had a field day with it. I myself was less impressed with it, and by doing a scatterplot of the list of happy states, and suicide rates, I found out that the "unhappiest" states have the lowest suicide rates.
I read a New York Times article about the study, which was of course relevant to the Times, since New York State was, allegedly, the unhappiest state. I mentioned to the author that it seems like a curious conclusion that the "Unhappiest" state would also have the lowest suicide rate. He agreed with me mostly, but also pointed out that some very happy places had high suicide rates: Scandinavia, for example.
And here we reach the subject of this essay: the social truism that the Scandinavian countries are especially prone to suicide. It would be interesting to find out exactly when and where this belief started, but as with many matters of "common knowledge", it is impossible to track down what process of osmosis brought this idea into people's heads. It might have started with Hamlet's soliloquy, for all I know. What is more interesting is to look at the data on suicide rates:
This data, by itself, is not particularly informative, so I will list a few countries in comparison: Belgium, with Western Europe's highest rate of suicide, is at 21.1, a bit above Finland. France and Switzerland are at 17.6, below Finland, but above the rest. Germany is a bit below Sweden, at 13, and Canada and Norway have the same rate. The United States is at 11.1, a bit below the lowest Scandinavian country. Spain and Italy, countries with a lot of sunshine and a strong Catholic church, are at 7.8 and 7.1, respectively. This is not to mention the suicide rate in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, which runs from the mid-20s into the low 40s. The top seven countries by suicide rate are all part of the former Soviet Bloc.
In other words, from this basic data, it seems that the suicide rate in Scandinavia is about what it is in the rest of Western Europe, perhaps a bit higher than average, but not overwhelming so, and not even the highest among Western Europe.
All statistical data should be looked at with suspicion, and suicide statistics especially so. For one thing, the source of my data might not be accurate, and it admits as such, with these numbers coming from various years and times. For another, how suicide is committed, and reported, varies from country to country. Someone in a strongly Catholic country with suicidal urges may commit suicide by, for example, swimming in a place where they are at a high risk of drowning. Or even if they are clearly committing suicide, the investigating authorities may list it as an "accident" to spare the family the social stigma of suicide. The demographics of suicide also make a big difference to how it is perceived: the dramatic suicide of a young person will probably gather a lot more attention than the quiet suicides of older, retired men. For these reasons, this data should of course be looked at closely.
And yet, on the face of it, we have a Scandinavia with about average suicide rates, stereotyped as being under a plague of constant suicide. What are the reasons for this? I think part of it is just cultural foiling: it makes sense to think of the Scandinavians as being melancholy, reserved people suffering through a seemingly endless arctic night, while the people of Italy and Spain are lapping up the sunshine and celebrating life. There is also, I believe, some type of political or social agenda at work in this portrayal. The popular mythology is that Scandinavia's cradle to grave social welfare system gives people everything they want, but without any challenges, the people grow depressed and full of ennui. Perhaps if they lived in a society of rugged individualism, they would find life more worth living. I believe this is one of the main subtexts of the stereotypes of Scandinavians as suicidal, and it is based on several pieces of data that are either generalizations or false.
What is most interesting to me is how long a piece of folklore like "Scandinavians have high suicide rates" can persist, even when people have the power to go and look up the information in a few minutes. Also, the way that unchecked data like this can worm into people's brains and influence their perceptions of the world, and even become an unquestioned part of discourse, again when it could be dispelled in a few minutes.