His death sent shockwaves across Sweden as the arts community there reeled at the loss of a newly heralded talent. But among some natives, the tragedy contained a second layer: It could reinforce a stereotype that drives many Swedes completely crazy. For decades, the Nordic country widely known for its dark winters, chilling climate, and cradle-to-grave welfare regime has been combating the notion that Swedes commit suicide at a rate disproportionally higher than the rest of the world — a fact not borne out by the data, which shows that Sweden actually ranks below the average rate of industrialized countries when it comes to suicide deaths per 100,000 people.
Nearly every Swede can tell you that the genesis of this legend comes from a searing Cold War speech in 1960 by Dwight Eisenhower in which Ike threw shade on Sweden’s embrace of socialist policies, saying they trigger “sin, nudity, drunkenness and suicide.” Not soon after, the suicidal label “spread around the world,” said Åke Daun, an ethnology professor at Stockholm University and the author of Swedish Mentality.
This notion, like Sweden’s stubbornly high quality of life, has persisted over the decades: Sweden did seem to have a high suicide rate some 50 years ago, when the theory started gaining traction. But experts say the culprit then was actually shoddy reporting that led to inflated statistics. And while other countries, like the Soviet Union, also over-reported suicides, for some reason it was Sweden that was stuck with this reputation. When I lived in Gothenburg and Swedes discovered I was American, I'd inevitably get asked, "So what do Americans really think of us? Do they think we're suicidal? You know that's not true, right?" And surely the fact that one of Sweden's most well-known legends, Ingmar Bergman, produced brooding films utterly fixated on death doesn't help matters.
It's a public relations battle fought on many fronts. On the Swedish government’s “10 Swedish myths uncovered” webpage, after innocuous misconceptions about Volvos and beautiful blonde women, “Swedes are suicidal” is listed as the final myth. (“All in all, I’d say the Swedes are quite a happy bunch,” the author assures a skeptical world.) Reuters noted in the late 1980s that “it may still be some time until the [Swedish] suicide myth is buried in the past,” and that is just as true a quarter-century later.
Swede Erik Sidung, who works for TV4 in Stockholm, spoke for a lot of Swedes when he said he’s fed up with the conversation. “Yes, the conception very much exists,” he said, recalling having the suicide discussion countless times during his time as a bartender in London’s West End. “Along with the conceptions of polar bears on the streets and the conception of Sweden as a national of sex-crazed naked blondes and silent Vikingmen.”
So why has this stereotype stuck around so much? The sunshine theory comes up quite frequently. Since parts of Sweden experience just six hours of sunlight during the country’s long and bleak winters, it’s held that the endless-seeming darkness plunges Swedes into states of unrelenting dejection. And to be sure, the winter blues are a real thing up there, and during these months, Swedes conversationally throw around their special word for it — vinterdepression — at cocktail parties and dinners. Coping mechanisms are many. Some do light therapy, spike their D-Vitamin intake, or more just, as Swedes are apt to do, swill copious amount of coffee.
But the link between sunlight and actual suicide is tenuous, and nearly all credible evidence suggests the opposite: In Sweden, and many other countries, suicides in fact peak in the spring and early summer, not during the pall of winter. (There are all manner of explanations as to why suicide peaks during sunny months. One theory is that, when the weather warms up, people pull themselves out of hibernation and interact with more people. For some, that triggers more social anxiety and more peer comparisons, driving people over the edge.)
There’s also the fact that this myth is irresistible to those who resent Sweden’s high levels of national happiness and very generous social safety net (like, say, overworked and unhappy Americans). A degree of smug comeuppance may be at work here: Sure, Sweden may seem like a socialized Scandinavian paradise, cluck the naysayers, but if it’s so great why are people killing themselves left and right? Clearly something must be wrong with the place.
There’s actually some data to support an unexpected link between national happiness and suicide. Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco conducted a global suicide survey and concluded that a paradox exists: The happiest places have the highest rates. The researchers speculated that “people may find it particularly painful to be unhappy in a happy place, so that the decision to commit suicide is influenced by relative comparisons.”
But Sweden doesn’t particularly stand out on this front: Yes, it is listed as a happy place in the study, but not as happy as Austria and Switzerland, both of which also have higher suicide rates. Nonetheless, the purveyor of Volvos and birthplace of Ikea was still cited in press accounts of the study — you know, those Swedes, who we all know have raging suicidal tendencies.