Country of the frozen North loses death image

Finland has finally shed a bleak record as the world's suicide capital after the number of people taking their own lives in this Nordic state has dropped by 40 per ent in the past 15 years.

Nowadays around 18 out of 100,000 people commit suicide each year in Finland, about the same level as in France and Austria. In 1990, the number was 30 per 100,000.

The decline is attributed largely to better treatment for depression, but even experts cannot really explain why the drop has been so dramatic, admits psychiatrist Jouko Loennqvist, the head of the mental health department of Finland's National Public Health Institute.

"Depression is more often properly recognised, prevented and treated. We have had special projects and campaigns about depression, which is now better recognised and treated. Psychological support and social support are nowadays in better condition," he said.

Finland's dire reputation as a nation of suicidals dates back to the 25-year period from 1965 to 1990 when Finland experienced an economic and urban boom.

During that period, the suicide rate tripled. By 1991, Finland was the world leader in teen suicides, and among the top three in overall suicides alongside New Zealand and Iceland.

Faced with the grim figures, Finnish authorities dramatically increased funding to improve mental health and since 1991 the amount of available psychiatric help has doubled.

"We also have a lot of new antidepressant drugs (which are) easy to use, whereas until the late 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, practicians usually gave patients anxiolytics (anti-anxiety drugs) and sedatives," Loennqvist said.

Awareness campaigns in schools and among military conscripts also seem to have paid off, as the suicide rate among adolescents and young adults has dropped by 30 percent since 1991.

But the suicide rate is still high among young men -- it is the main cause of death among males aged 20 to 34.
Among all ages and genders, the suicide rate is highest in isolated and economically disadvantaged regions in the east and north of the country. By contrast, it is lower in the Swedish-speaking regions on the west coast.

The typical profile of a Finnish suicide victim is a man in his 40s, divorced and unemployed, alcoholic and in poor health. In addition to traditional risk factors such as depression, alienation, personal problems and unemployment, Finnish researchers single out alcoholism as the biggest single risk factor.

"The social factor exists but it's not crucial,", said Mauri Marttunen, a professor of youth psychiatry at Helsinki University, noting that Finland's strong economy has made it one of the richest countries per inhabitant and that it has a narrow gap between rich and poor.

However, "half of all suicides are linked to alcohol, and one-third of all suicides have been (committed by) alcohol-dependent persons," Loennqvist said.

Finns drink the equivalent of 10 liters (2.64 gallons) of pure alcohol per year per person, according to figures from the World Health Organization from 2004. That's less than the French, who drink 14 liters, but more than Swedes or Norwegians who drink seven and six liters respectively.

Experts meanwhile dismiss the widespread belief that Finland's dark winters, where the sun doesn't rise at all in the north for several months, play a role in the suicide rate.

"There is a link (between darkness and suicide) but it's not an important explanation," Loennqvist said, noting that suicides tend to peak each year at the end of spring when the sun shines late into the day.

And experts point out that Norway, located at the same latitude, for a long time had a suicide rate that was half that of Finland.