Crisis, happiness and suicide

While driving home from a family vacation in the West of Denmark (Jutland) today we were listening to the news on the radio. The news had two stories, which in some odd way were related to each other as both stories were about happiness. The first story was about Denmark (again!) being ranked number 1 in something called the World Happiness Report. The second story was more sad – it was about a 77-year-old Greek man who killed himself in Athens’ busy Syntagma Square on Wednesday morning. The man apparently killed himself in disappear over his own and his country’s economic situation.

Going through the international media one gets the impression that the sad events in Athens was a general tendency across the crisis hit South European countries. However, the stories made me think about the connection between the economic crisis, happiness and suicide.

Apparently we Danes are very happy about life and Greeks are so miserable that they kill themselves in big numbers. The problem is just that does not exactly fit the empirical facts – at least not if we compare the suicide rate in Denmark and Greece. In fact Danes are more than three times more likely killing themselves than Greeks. According to data from the World Health Organization the suicide rate in Denmark was 11.9 suicides per 100,000 people per year in 2011. In Greece the similar number was 3.5.

Interestingly Danes are more suicidal than all of the PIIGS. The suicide rate in Portugal is 7.9, in Italy it is 6.3, in Ireland 11.8 and in Spain 7.6. So one can hardly argue that scores of people are killing themselves in disappear over the economic crisis. Southern European generally are not very suicidal – contrary to Scandinavians.

Obviously journalists love the story that economic crisis leads to a surge in suicides. The stories about people jumping from skyscrapers during the Great Depression in the US is also widespread. However, the stories are generally not true. No can not find a strong correlation between economic crisis and the level of suicides in a nation. I am not saying that economic crisis does not impact the number of suicides, but other factors are far more important (the fact that we have long and dark winters in Scandinavia might explain something…). Anybody saying anything else should explain why Danes and Finns (number 1 and 2 in the “Happiness” ranking) are killing the themselves in much greater numbers than Greeks or Italians. Yes, the number of suicides in for example Greece has increased since 2008, but saying that primarily is a result of the economic crisis is simply to farfetched.

As a Dane I can only wonder why we apparently are so happy and then at the same time kill ourselves in great numbers. Dare I say there is a survivorship bias in the survey?

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