Kiwi Abroad

Matt Kennedy-Good extends his OE and follows his heart to Finland

Finland: Happiness is a warm gun

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Although it was only 3pm, away from the glare of our headlights, darkness was already seeping into the snow covered fields along the roadside. Aside from the occasional passing car, all was quiet and still.

"Welcome to suicide country" Minna said from the back seat, raising her eyebrows.

With her words hanging in the air, we looked out the window at the midwinter countryside. Although peaceful and at times beautiful, there was also something oppressive and foreboding about it.

The comment was based on more than a vague sensation. Twenty years ago Finland had one of the highest suicide rates in the world, with 30 people for every 100,000 taking their lives each year. The statistics were particularly grim in the isolated, less prosperous northern part of the countryside that we were driving through.

Even more tragic, Finland has recently earned notoriety for a high incidence of homicides and mass shootings. In November 2007 an 18-year-old man shot dead nine people including himself at his school just north of Helsinki. Less than a year later a 22-year-old man killed himself and 9 others at his college close by.

The shootings grabbed world headlines not just because of the horrifying details, but because they mirrored each other: Both men fitted a similar profile, both posted menacing YouTube videos indicating what they were about to do and both bought their handguns at the same store.

When searching for an explanation for these terrible statistics, the darkness already enveloping our car that January afternoon was an obvious candidate.

With a quarter of Finland's territory within the Arctic Circle, Finns are subject to great extremes in darkness and light. At the northern tip of the country the sun doesn't even rise for 51 days during winter.

This is not just a problem for your tan. While humans have always recognised that sunshine makes us happy, it is only relatively recently that scientists have begun to understand why the absence of sun in winter can cause temporary depression, now called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

The reason is that sunlight helps to regulate a number of hormones and neurotransmitters that control the body clock and also strongly affect mood and behaviour.

When the sun sets, our bodies produce more of the hormone melatonin, making us sleepy.

With the bright light of the rising sun our systems stop manufacturing as much melatonin, and step up production of serotonin instead. It is serotonin that wakes us up and keeps us in a good mood.

When people in Finland told me they hibernate in wintertime, I didn't realise they meant it literally until I moved here. The darkness makes for wonderful sleep-ins and booming morning coffee sales.

But it is not just the amount of light that is important.

We also need sunlight to actually hit our skin in order to produce vitamin D. Vitamin D is important for regulating our moods and because of its influence over other chemicals controlling our mental well being.

Even now in spring when the sun is often shining, it is still usually only a few degrees above zero during the day time and too cold to expose arms or legs to the sun.

All this means that the further away from the equator people live, the more likely they are to get SAD during the winter. Here at the top of the world 9.5 per cent of the population suffer from some form of it.

Happily, there are now a plethora of treatments for SAD.

One friend of mine has a lamp that slowly gets bright at a set time each morning to trick her body into thinking that the sun is rising.

Another has a lamp that is as bright as 10,000 candles, which she sits in front of for 30 minutes each day to mimic the effect of sunlight. To make up for the lack of broad spectrum sunshine hitting their skin, many people also take vitamin D pills.

With the media hype about SAD and all these new treatments available, it is not surprising that the long winter darkness is often blamed for the high rates of depression-related violence.

The interesting thing is that studies show no significant correlation between suicide, homicide and dark winters.

In Finland, like other countries, the number of people committing suicide peaks in spring. Homicide on the other hand is most likely to occur here in summer, when it is light almost constantly.

Doctors say that an absence of sunshine is not an important cause of suicidal or homicidal tendencies.

Factors that lead to this type of behaviour are far more complex, but social problems and alcohol abuse are considered much more significant.

Further destroying the myth, Norway is located at the same latitude and shares Finland's long bleak winters, but has always had comparatively low rates of suicide and homicide.

Even the label "suicide country" is out of date, with suicide rates in Finland decreasing by 40 per cent in the last 20 years.

Doctors attribute the decline - which brings the rate to the same levels as in France and Austria - primarily to better treatment.

This is not to say that the statistics are wholly inexplicable.

According to The Economist there is a strong correlation between gun ownership and gun-related deaths (whether murder, suicide or accident).

Amongst the developed world Finland, the United States and Switzerland have the most gun-related deaths and are also amongst the top four countries for gun ownership.

Finland has some of the most lenient gun restrictions partly due to a long tradition of hunting. Because of the recent shootings, the Government plans to introduce new legislation this spring to make it more difficult to own handguns, unnecessary for hunting.

One wonders why handguns are not banned altogether.

In a sense it is true that "guns don't kill people, people do" but readily concealed and re-fired handguns obviously make it much easier for disturbed people to kill others.

To an outsider it seems obvious that the misery they have helped inflict on Finnish society far outweighs their benefits.

Of course the problem is not just a Finnish one. If not for handguns, John Lennon - writer of the song Happiness is a Warm Gun - might still be alive to sing it.

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