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August 08, 2005

Reason #103,235 why I don't (much) trust the mainstream media

Consider this 2000+-word article by Robert G. Kaiser, associate editor of the Washington Post, and one of the leading lights of the mainstream media. It's about Finland. The article is the capstone of a series of articles--26 by my count--that Kaiser and Lucian Perkins wrote this spring and summer.

The article explains that Finland has wonderful, free child care. Finland has wonderful, free K-12, undergraduate, and professional education. Finland has wonderful medical care that costs half of ours. Finland has good, indefinitely long unemployment benefits.

The thesis statement of the article is this: "Americans could easily get used to the sense of well-being that Finns get from their welfare state, which has effectively removed many of the tangible sources of anxiety that beset our society."

Excuse me, but I have one little, picky question. With all these wonderful social services, social services that eliminate so many of the sources of anxiety in society, why does Finland have one of the highest suicide rates in the world? More specifically, why is it nearly double that of the anxious U.S.?

I understand that cross-country comparisons of suicide rates might be problematic. There could well be important differences in data collection and reporting that make comparisons misleading. But Kaiser doesn't make that case.

In fact, Kaiser, in this final article, doesn't mention the suicide rate at all. And in a search of the preceding 26 articles, I find only one brief mention of the issue, a question to a leading Finnish scholar, who replies 1) it can get really cold in Finland, and 2) Finns' great empathy for each other, the empathy that supports all those wonderful social programs, "occasionally" turns into "self-destructive melocholy".

Regarding #1: dubious. Sweden seems to be about as cold as Finland, but has a suicide rate comparable to the U.S. Norway and Iceland seem to be almost as cold as Finland, but the suicide rates are, again, comparable to the U.S.

Regarding #2: if this is a good explanation--I have no idea--shouldn't Kaiser reveal it as a Dark Side to the society that supports all those social programs? If those programs were proposed by Republicans, I'd bet a lot of money that the Washington Post would solemnly inform us that empathy has an Important Downside. But Kaiser's love letter to the Finns doesn't provide that caveat.

(My quick Googling for explanations of the high Finnish suicide rate didn't turn up much other than an interesting suggestion that there may be a genetic component.)

(And I note that Kaiser concludes that what the Finns do, Americans probably can't or won't accept. But he does sound awfully wistful.)

For some good news about Anxious America, look at David Brooks's most recent column:

Obviously, we're not living in a utopia, where all social problems have been solved. But these improvements across a whole range of behaviors are too significant to be dismissed. We in the media play up the negative, as we always do. The activist groups emphasize the work still to be done, because they want to keep people mobilized and financing their work.

But the good news is out there. You want to know what a society looks like when it is in the middle of moral self-repair? Look around.

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Phil

Sweden has the same welfare state sytle of government as Finland and like you said, they have similar suicide rates as the U.S. - So the welfare state really has nothing to do with suicide rates.

Robert Kaiser set out to Finland with an ulterior motive - he wanted to show Americans that a more left-wing style of government is better. If you didn't know better, you'd think his "Finland Diary" was written by the Finnish tourist board, it was a completely biased one-sided report. Luckly there's my blog, "Finland for Thought", where we discuss both sides of Finland and the welfare state. :-)

Here's a few posts on Kaiser's "Finland Diary"...
http://www.finlandforthought.net/index.php?p=602
http://www.finlandforthought.net/index.php?p=607
http://www.finlandforthought.net/index.php?p=616
http://www.finlandforthought.net/index.php?p=630
http://www.finlandforthought.net/index.php?p=656
http://www.finlandforthought.net/index.php?p=669

Tim Worstall

I think the genetic component might be right. Finns and Hungarians are closely related (the joke goes that the Finns are the ones who couldn’t read the signs saying "This way to Hungary") and the Hungarians also have a high suicide rate, or so I’m told.

That child care system sounds surprisingly like a voucher system. You choose and the Govt pays. The school system also sounds amazingly like one. You choose your education and the Govt pays. The schools write the curricula...not the unions or the school board. Sweden definitely has a pure voucher system as does, I think, Denmark. Wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that Finland has at least the working basis of one.

So wouldn’t that be as meaning that a good school system requires that it be free of the educational bureaucracy?

knzn

I thought it was fairly well accepted that countries in the far north had (on average) high suicide rates because of the short days in the winter (which aggravates the “seasonal affective disorder” suffered by some of the population both there and elsewhere). I am surprised you find no mention of this in your search. (Then again, I’m not a psychiatric anthropologist, and what knowledge I do have of that field is not up to date, so I could be completely wrong.)

Mike K

Different systems work for different people. Using the fact that there's a relatively high suicide rate in Finland to discredit the Finnish system is the same as using the relatively high homicide rate in the US to discredit the US system. Finnland may not work for all Finns, but the US doesn't work for all Americans either.

ambl

I think one big factor is that the finnish society can be very cruel to an adult male. It's ok to help others in need, but asking help for yourself is a sign of weakness. This is especially true in the case of mental problems. Many choose to kill themselves rather than face the shame of being considered weak.

Finns in general don't show much emotions, especially when compared to americans. The long and dark winters don't of course help either.

Kyle

Let me address the bigger question here. The Socialist Utopias of western europe are indeed pretty nice places to live. The people get some good generic benifits while enduring painfully high unemployment, taxes, and government control. (at least untill the pension and medical costs come crashing down in the next decade.)
But the question to ask is WHY DO WE HAVE TO BE JUST LIKE THEM?
I would rather, there exist at least one advanced nation which believes in free markets.

Craig Newmark

I thank all the commenters. Special greetings to my (at least two) Finnish readers! Here are some additional remarks.

To ambl: I saw a number of speculations that the suicide rate among Finnish males might be higher because they supress emotion. (There were also speculations that they are more hen-pecked.) This theory is at best incomplete because suicide rates of Finnish women are similarly high (compared to women in the rest of the world).

To ambl and knzn, regarding seasonal affective disorder. Again, this at best is an incomplete explanation, for at least two reasons. 1) Why doesn't this equally affect residents of Sweden, Norway, and Iceland? I also looked at suicide rates among U.S. states, and while Alaska's is higher than the U.S. average, it is much closer to the U.S.'s rate than to Finland's. 2) I found an interesting paper on the Net, "The Economic Correlates of Suicide: Evidence from US State Data" (at http://www.columbia.edu/~cm2036/suicide.pdf). Granted, data from U.S. states might not be informative regarding Finland. But their regression analysis does include "average percentage of possible annual sunshine". They find that controlling for other factors, sunshine has only a small effect on the suicide rate; it even has a positive sign in some specifications. They also find, interestingly, that public expenditures on health and welfare, and income equality, have significant negative effects on the suicide rate. In the purported social paradise that is Finland, these are reasons why the suicide rate should be much lower, other things equal.

To Mike K: I agree that the high rate of suicide does not "discredit the Finnish system". But that was not at all my point. My point was that the Washington Post piece barely mentions it, whereas if a similar piece were written about the U.S., I'd bet a large sum of money that our high rates of crime and homicide would be mentioned. My point was about the slant in the reporting.

To Tim: Speaking of slant I, too, thought the article might be suggesting that the Finns' educational system was successful in part because of the smaller amounts of teacher unionization and centralized control. But it wasn't completely clear, and the much greater homogeneity of the Finns probably also contributes, and the post was too long to add another topic. But it's quite possible that this was another instance of the slanted perspective of the article.

Eino-Kalevi

"The people get some good generic benifits while enduring painfully high unemployment, taxes, and government control."

They aren't painfully high. I don't know what you mean by government control.

"I would rather, there exist at least one advanced nation which believes in free markets."

Finland is an advanced nation which believes in free markets. The politicians nowadays only talk about competitivity. Americans didn't know much about Finland before, and now it seems that they think it's somekind of socialist country. Greatly amusing, but of course Americans are traditionally known as stupid.

Rafael

I was surfing around the net and landed here after reading the Washington Post article so forgive me for resurrecting this one.

I have been living here in Finland with my family for ten years now and I hope I could shed some light on the suicide discussion. I dont think the high suicide rates have anything at all to do with Finland being a welfare state. In my opinion it is the combination of Finlands history, genetics, social behavior and harsh winters.

Through out the history Finns have been used as labour and cannon fodder for Swedish and Russians. This has molded the people to be shy, stubborn and prone to melancoly. Finnish people, both males and females, tend to suppres their emotions. They actively try to avoid conversations with strangers and even in company of close friends they act reserved. In Finnish literacy and movies the characters are commonly portrayed as people who have suffered alot but in spite of everything, they refuce to ask or seek help and instead drown themself in the bottle. There is a Finnish saying that goes something like "if your happy/lucky, hide it" and people tend to live up to that.

There was a great economic depression in the 90's and many are still paying up huge debts. In a nation where showing emotions and asking for help is considered a weakness this means that many families went through immence crisis.

Winter in Finland is colder than in Norway or Sweden but its not the temperature that gets people gloomy, its the lack of sunlight. Most people work during the sunlight in winter time so when they get up in the morning its pitch black and when they get home from work the sun is settling down. This means that the outdoor activities are somewhat limited and you will end up spending alot of time home.

When you combine all these you will see why Finns could me more prone to suicide.

When I moved in Finland in 1996 from Spain i was in for a cultural shock. I am clearly not of a Finnish descend and it was nearly impossible to get to know anyone without physically restrincting them from hiding in their cubicles. Co-workers would grunt at me, neighbours didnt greet me for several months even if we shared the elevator in the building. However the apparent lack of social skills (i generalize alot but only to make a point) is in my experience in no way connected with the welfare, or hand-helding if you like, system used in Finland.

Besides that, Finns dont seem to think the high taxes as a burden and i agree with that. When my daughter gets older she can have the best education for free, if she gets hurt she will get the best medical care available. She can have a free dental care when she goes to school and if at some point in her life she has financial troubles then she will have somekind of a safety net to keep her from dropping out of the society. I do not pay taxes, i pay to ensure that my family will have a good fulfilling life if something bad happens.

Im not sure eighter what you mean by goverment control.
I dont feel like the big brother is watching, infact i dont think he even cares ;)

Hannu Mononen

As a Finnish psychiatrist I would like to comment the issue of high suicide rates.

Rafael above made some very valid statements regarding the Finnish culture, with its idealized demand of getting along on your own, and feeling shame about needing support from others, plus the general lack of social skills towards both coutrymen and foreigners.

The dark winters can be one risk factor for those vulnerable to seasonal affective disorder. The traditional self-medication with alcohol only makes matters worse. Especially in the countryside, hunting has always been popular.

It is a formidably lethal combination to have
- untreated depression
- drunkenness
- firearms at hand.

This problem is uniquely Finnish, it does not apply to our Scandinavian neighbours living on the same latitudes. Perhaps we have an extra dose of aggression in our Fenno-Ugric genes, which may under adverse conditions get out of impulse control?

However, a partially successful effort was made to address the problem actively with a national prevention programme. It has been a scientific international reference point ever since: http://www.ilo.org/public/english/employment/skills/disability/papers/finpart3/finpart519.htm
Thanks to this effort, we have among us today some surviving fellow-citizens, who would now be six feet under without it.

This graph http://www.stat.fi/ajk/tiedotteet/v2003/219ters.html shows it: the light blue curve on top is the annual incidence of male suicides corrected for age per 100 000 people (the dark blue represents male deaths related to alcohol). The female deaths on lower level for these causes have become roughly equal in the 2000's.

Recognition and effective treatment of depression is one of the solutions, as well as lessening the stigma of seeking professional help.

anon

Dr Newmark, being a shameless partisan swine, knowingly (Lord hopes!) mixes causality with correlation, an example of the high-school-thinking that he prefers when advocating for his tinny world view. May his students take note.

Collin Moriarty

I think teachers are the greatest people on earth. I owe so much to them for their dedication, patience and just plain hard work. They get little pay and sometimes less respect from talking heads, but they sleep well at night.

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