Statistics from the European Union statistics unit Eurostat indicate that Finland now records 13 suicides annually per 100,000 inhabitants, placing it just above the European average of 11.
According to Eurostat, the current top European country for suicides is Lithuania, where there are 30 suicides per population of 100,000 yearly. This number is several times higher than the lowest ranked countries of Greece and Cyprus, which report annual suicide rates of 5 and 4 per 100,000, respectively.
University of Helsinki professor of psychiatry Erkki Isometsä says that the latest Eurostat figures now show the real situation in the former Soviet countries, where information on such matters was not available for decades.
"Now that we have more data, Finland’s position on the world map is clearer," he says.
"Declining suicide rates are pretty much a trend in western Europe, and Finland is part of this general tendency. But it is perhaps true that the situation has improved more dramatically in Finland than in other places," he says.
Data from Finland’s state-owned number cruncher Statistics Finland confirm the Eurostat figures. Finland’s suicide rate peaked in the late 80s (not after the recession in the early nineties, as is widely believed), but it has since fallen swiftly since that time.
The figures also disprove another myth: that the most suicides in Finland would occur during the dark months of spring and autumn. Research has shown that people in Finland take their lives at a relatively regular rate throughout the year, with only a slight increase in the early summer between May and mid-July.
Better treatment and medication have been key
Professor Erkki Isometsä says there is no one reason that could be pinpointed for Finland’s improving suicide statistics, but the trend does correlate with a national suicide prevention campaign that was launched when things were at their worst.
"It started with a research phase that mapped out all of the suicides in Finland in the late 1980s. This increased the suicide cognizance of the psychiatric treatment system considerably, he says.
He says the state of treatment for depression during the late eighties was also a contributing factor. As the means for treating people improved in the nineties, drugs to help with the disease also become more readily available and easier to use.
"The new medications had fewer side effects than the older options, so general practitioners weren’t so averse to prescribing them," he says.
In Finland, the use of pharmaceutical products for dealing with depression reached a plateau in 2011. Out-patient care has become much more common in recent years, and the state benefits administrator Kela now supports rehabilitation therapy more widely, making it easier to receive.
The data shows that men are more likely than women to take their own lives, and that substance abuse has a clear influence on suicide mortality.
"Close to half of all suicides [in Finland] are linked to substance abuse in one way or another," Isometsä confirms.