Norway struggles with its suicides

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Calls are rising for more openness and honesty about suicides in Norway, both in the media and the otherwise open public debate. This week’s International Suicide Prevention Day brought the issue to the forefront once again, in a country where many argue that it’s been a taboo subject for far too long.

No one can say for sure how many Norwegians commit suicide every year, but the official number in 2016 was 614. Thousands more attempted suicide, and calls are going out once again for more openness around a subject that’s been suppressed for years. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

“My mother chose to end her life when I was 12 years old, and at that time, NO ONE even talked about it,” wrote one Norwegian on social media this week. The post also expressed gratitude for a special event held on Monday by a Norwegian comedienne who’s among those who think suicide has been hushed up in Norway for far too long. Else Kåss Furuseth, who lost her own mother and older brother to suicide, opened her home in Oslo’s Bislet district for what she called a “mini-festival” to address suicide with music, conversation, coffee and waffles. She’s also started hosting a television series about suicide that premiered this week on TV Norge and Dplay. She’ll be meeting with people affected by suicide, to “learn more” about who has chosen to kill themselves, and why.

Furuseth said she wanted to gather people in her home “to hammer in the point that you (anyone affected by suicide or the thought of it) are not alone.” Her impromptu event was fully booked and even Prime Minister Erna Solberg dropped by: “The public sector has a responsibility (to help prevent suicide),” Solberg told NTB, “but we as fellow human beings also have a responsibility to be open, to meet and speak with people. We must teach our children from the time they’re small how they can deal with difficult feelings.”

Media ‘maintains taboos’
The problem in Norway has long been the lack of openness around suicide, or to even report it in the mainstream media, allegedly for fear of inspiring more suicides. Suicide is very much viewed as a private tragedy in Norway: When the son of former Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland committed suicide while she was still in office, the news was suppressed even though her officials duties had to be at least temporarily assumed by others in her government. When other Norwegians well-known enough to warrant press coverage have committed suicide, it’s also been suppressed. Journalists routinely report merely that the person “was found dead,” with no mention of the circumstances or cause of death. The most awkward cases involve searches for missing persons: If he or she is eventually “found dead,” the media coverage that may well have been intense suddenly ceases.

The Norwegian media’s reluctance and even refusal to report suicides has long sparked criticism that its self-censorship merely perpetuates the lack of openness that has surrounded suicide for generations. “Every year there are four times as many people who die by suicide as in traffic accidents,” notes Furuseth, “but we don’t hear so much about them.” The two leaders of Norway’s support association for those left behind in suicide cases have also complained about the lack of openness in the press: “The reflex in editorial departments is to not report suicide, instead of even considering whether it’s ethically advisable,” wrote Henning Herrestad and Kari Wille Rekdal of the association (Landsforeningen for etterlatte ved selvmord) in a letter to the editor of newspaper Aftenposten in 2015. “The media thus contribute towards maintaining the taboos about suicide, as something that must be silenced.”

Public opening up instead
While the Norwegian media continues to exercise extreme caution in reporting on suicides, and generally only long after a suicide and in cooperation with the deceased’s family, the public in general has been opening up instead. It’s becoming increasingly common to see death notices supplied by families themselves to Aftenposten, for example, that read how a “dear” spouse, parent or child “chose to leave us,” with donations urged for various organizations instead of flowers. Even the nekrologer (written tributes to people who have recently died) are more frequently and openly noting that the deceased “couldn’t manage to carry on any longer,” or “chose to leave life.” In many cases, psychiatric illness is mentioned as background for the suicide.

Celebrities in addition to Furuseth have also shared their experiences with suicide. Pop musician Lene Marlin was overwhelmed by the positive reaction when she wrote, in a commentary in Aftenposten, about her own psychological problems back in 2014, and her own attempted suicide. The huge response she received “showed that there is an enormous need to talk about this,” Marlin said at the time. She has since continued a successful career in music and entertainment.

Last year more than 21,000 telephone calls for help came in to Norway’s main crisis and suicide prevention line, run by the humanitarian organization Kirkens SOS. News bureau NTB rep0rts that as many as 600 people commit suicide in Norway every year, and that 10 times more attempt it. That means far more people die through suicide than in accidents on the road or at sea combined.

Tips and tributes
Leif Jarle Theis, secretary general of Kirkens SOS, also thinks it’s important “to talk about this,” and not hush it up. While the media remains reluctant to cover specific suicides, the issue was up for debate again and several newspapers, broadcast media and websites were offering tips this week about how to tackle the subject, and not least how to try to help someone who may be considering suicide. Hundreds also gathered outside Oslo’s central train station Monday evening to light 614 candles in memory of the number of registered suicides in Norway in 2016. The actual number may be far higher. Norwegian Broadcastng (NRK) reports that the numbers of suicides among women over age 50 are rising, as are suicides or suspected suicides among the elderly. Suicide remains the main cause of death among Norwegians under age 30.

Åse Michaelsen, who was appointed earlier this year as Norway’s new government minister in charge of public health and the elderly, has announced a new “action plan” aimed at preventing suicides. It will involve both the state health ministry and the public health institute and especially address how to improve services for psychiatic patients. New statistics, she said, show that many of those who have committed suicide had been admitted to psychiatric institutions or recently been released.

“Every single suicide is a huge tragedy,” said Michaelsen, who represents the conservative Progress Party. “We must be better at seeing warning signs and being alert to signals.” Health Minister Bent Høie of the Conservatives noted that health services within the schools are being boosted, to help children and teens struggling with social pressure or bullying. He also claimed that it’s most important to talk about suicide openly. “We must dare to ask questions,” Høie said, “and dare to show that we care.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund