New Year speeches all addressed suicide

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King Harald, Prime Minister Erna Solberg and the president of Norway’s Sami Parliament, Aili Keskitalo, all tackled the difficult issue of suicide in their traditional New Year addresses to the nation. King Harald won praise for what was called his “serious, warm, but authoritative” message to the Norwegian people.

Norway’s King Harald V, in mourning over the death of his former son-in-law, delivered a powerful New Year”s address that won widespread acclaim. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

The monarch, stunned by his own former son-in-law Ari Behn’s suicide on Christmas Day, wasted no time in addressing it, and noting how suicide affects many Norwegians.

“Many of us are heading into the New Year with sorrow in our hearts,” King Harald said in the monarch’s speech that’s always broadcast on both NRK TV and radio on New Year’s Eve.. He noted that “hope belongs to all of us,” but went on to acknowledge that he and his own family “are deeply affected by Ari Behn’s death this Christmas.” He seemed to heave a sigh before thanking the public for an outpouring of sympathy during the past week and for all the lighted candles left outside the Palace in Oslo.

“There’s comfort in all the good memories and kind words about the father to three of our dear grandchildren,” he said. Behn was married to the king’s daughter, Princess Martha Louise, for 14 years, from 2002 until their divorce in 2016.

Direct and honest
Then King Harald became surprisingly direct and honest about suicide, a topic that’s long been a taboo in Norway and rarely acknowledged publicly. “Sometimes life becomes unbearable,” the 82-year-old monarch said while sitting next to flickering white candles in the palace. “For some, life becomes so dark that nothing helps, not even the love for those closest to them. Some see no other way out than to end their lives. Those who are left behind must live on, poorer and without the person they loved.”

King Harald was praised for his openness as he and his family deal with the tragedy of Ari Behn’s suicide. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

The monarch, with the wisdom of age and in mourning even as he spoke, told Norwegians that “the best we can do is to be there for one another, pay attention to one another, remember to give each other kind words, and to carry one another when it’s needed.” He spoke of how “we know so little about what will confront us,” noting how that uncertainty “makes us all vulnerable.”‘

Reaction was swift and positive. “King Harald delivered a wise speech about how difficult it is when someone commits suicide,” Tove Gundersen, secretary general of Norway’s council for psychiatric health, told NRK. She has also praised the royal family and Behn’s family for their openness in dealing with the cause of Behn’s death.

“It’s good and easy to understand what the king is saying, and can influence how we can now talk about sorrow and suicide,” Gundersen told NRK, “also how important it is to have a network of friends and family.”

‘Gripping and powerful’
Commentator Harald Stanghelle also praised the speech, calling it “gripping and powerful.” He said he thinks many Norwegians appreciate the king’s openness, also about mental health. “I think it’s important that the king speaks about and to people about this, Stanghelle said.

The king also spoke, as he did during a groundbreaking speech three years ago, about how enriched Norway has become because of its new diversity and flourishing culture. In a clear reference to school strikes by young climate activists during the past year, he hailed the younger generation “who want to use their knowledge and engagement to influence our development and common future.” He noted that research makes it “steadily more clear that we have long exploited the globe’s rich resources harder than they can tolerate.” And he urged “good conversations” in a time characterized by “rapid change, a hard debate climate and global unrest.” That’s needed, he claimed, “so that we don’t lose all the good we have created together.”

Agnes Moxnes, commentator for Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), noted how King Harald, “first and foremost used his most visible podium to look us all in the eyes, as a grandfather, father, father-in-law and spouse.”  He noted how the king’s most important role is to serve as a unifying factor among Norwegians, and how he must also be a king “for those who don’t hold out, and for those left with a sorrow-filled emptiness after someone they loved.”

Prime Minister Erna Solberg delivered her New Year’s address from her home in Oslo. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

He wasn’t the only one to address suicide, acknowledge the tragedy of it and even try to explain it. Prime Minister Erna Solberg opened her traditional address to the nation on New Year’s Day with a climate offensive, but also announced that her government will now take the initiative to chart reasons for mental health problems and suicide.

Solberg opted to redo her annual address after Behn’s suicide, adding that she sent her “warmest thoughts” to everyone has has lost a loved one during the past year. She noted that of those who died the year before, “674 people took their own lives in 2018. That’s 674 too many.”

She said there were “many reasons that people are in such despair that they take their own lives,” adding that mental health problems are rising, “especially among young girls. We don’t know why.” Her government therefore wants to identify and chart reasons, with the aim of “getting closer to a solution” that can ward off suicide.

“We must all, at any rate, work to bring down the suicide rate,” Solberg said. “Openness and daring to talk about feelings are important. Taking care of one another is always important.” She also praised the king and royal family as a whole for making a “formidable” contribution towards “including everyone in our society.”

Aili Keskitalo, president of the Sami Parliament in Norway, also address Behn’s suicide, mentioning that “unease and darkness” are also found “in our own lives.” PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Aili Keskitalo, president of Norway’s Sami Parliament in Karasjok, opened her New Year’s Day address by thanking the royal family for its openness in connection with Ari Behn’s death. She noted how many struggle in Norway, and called suicide “a challenge for our entire society. We must dare to show that we care, to show support and openly tackle difficult issues.”

She told NRK that suicide also is a major challenge among Norway’s indigenous Sami. The Sami Parliament has donated money and is working with the charitable organization Kirkens SOS to develop a Sami crisis line for those needing help.

“It’s important that we offer a service in line with our language and cultural needs,” Keskitalo said. “When people are in a difficult situation, it’s important to talk about feelings with others who speak you own language. We need professionals who understand Sami society and culture.”

State apology welcomed
Keskitalo also addressed other issues in her address, broadcast on NRK in Sami with Norwegian subtitles. noting how Norwegian authorities “finally apologized for the way people Northern Norway suffered after World War II,” includng how some Sami were accused of cooperating with the Soviet Union. Sami who helped Norwegians flee Nazi German-occupied Norway by crossing the border into Sweden were also honoured for the first time.

She said that the newly formed “truth and reconciliation” commission is well underway after years of discrimination against the Sami. “There are still powerful forces working against the Sami, and livelihoods such as reindeer herding, fishing, agriculture and use of wilderness areas,”she said. She is particularly opposed to mining operations in Kvalsund, calling them a “serious attack on Sami culture and business.”

There were bright points, however, including the conviction of a Norwegian man in 2019 for online expressions of hatred towards the Sami. She thanked those who support the Sami, both in the media and in court. She also hailed achievements in Sami music, how a Sami-inspired song won Norway’s national song contest in 2019 and how Disney Animation has not only spent a lot of time researching Sami culture for its new Frozen (Frost II) film but also is offering internships to Sami film students. A Sami version of the film has also been made.

Like the king and prime minister, Keskitalo claimed that “we must rely on one another and wish each other well” to maintain confidence within both Norwegian and Sami society. As King Harald put it: “We stand today on a foundation of everything we have built up together, and which must be protected. Because peace is fragile. Confidence is fragile. And life is fragile. We are steadily reminded of that.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund