Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Why does France have such high suicide rates?

I read a few hours back that a policeman has committed suicide in his police station near Paris. It is thought that personal problems may have been a contributing factor. Reading that story reminded me of another one I read, only yesterday, which reported that a 50-year-old man had died from the burns he suffered after he doused himself with an inflammable liquid and set himself alight. This took place in the social security offices he had gone to in order to discuss his benefit problems. And just the day before that came the news that a man had killed his wife, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, with a shotgun before committing suicide with it.

The high suicide rate amongst older people in France has reached such alarming proportions that Michèle Delaunay, the minister in charge of issues related to older people, recently declared that she has put it at the top of her priority list and will work hard to find ways of identifying those who may be considering suicide in order to try and reduce the risk of them actually doing so.

But suicide doesn't only concern older people, and a look at the statistics reveals that suicide rates in France are extremely high compared to those in most other western countries.

The 2011 WHO suicide rates by country list contains data on 107 countries and it puts France in 21st position, making it one of the most highly placed of all the major western countries. Curiously enough, two other French-speaking countries - Switzerland and Belgium - also have very high rates. By way of comparison, the USA is 41st, Great Britain is 61st, and many other western countries are situated in between or close to them.

The situation looks even grimmer in the context of the WHO's list for the 34 OECD countries, with the Belgium/Switzerland/France trio in 7th, 8th and 9th positions respectively. They are the most highly placed of all the richer nations with the exception of Finland and Japan. Looked at another way, Wikipedia points out that the suicide rate in France is "twice the rate [of that] in Britain and a 40% higher rate than Germany and the US."

The French are semi-obsessed by suicide and their press regularly highlight spates of suicide in specific population groups. One of the better known of these stories involved the string of suicides at France Télécom in which over 60 of the company's employees committed suicide between 2008 and 2011. Oddly enough though, although that rate was not much higher than the national average in statistical terms it still caused a lot of concern and led to countless press articles. Another long-running story has been that of suicide within the police and gendarmerie, which seems to be relatively common, and I remember reading a few months ago that 3 policemen had killed themselves in less than a week in Paris alone. The teaching profession has also been a recurrent source of suicide stories.

So why are the French so relatively prone to suicide? That question has been addressed countless times by academics, psychologists, epidemiologists and many others, and here are a few examples of their theories, some of which I think may contain an element of pertinence.

The Economist asked itself that exact question and came up with the theory that it could be to do with the fact that the French take more anti-depressants than is the case elsewhere. France's "existential angst" as they put it, may be imputable to various factors, such as the harsh reality of the evolution of France's employment and unemployment practices. This theory is also cited by others and the France Télécom suicides are often used to support it. My personal feeling on that however is that it cannot in itself be responsible given that the world of work has changed in a similar fashion in other countries without the same phenomenon being observed.

Dutch news site NRC also discussed the Télécom suicides in this article, adding that the French sometimes use suicide as a form of protest against perceived injustice. There is surely some truth in that, and many of those who self-immolate do so as a protest, often against state institutions which deal with issues such as benefits, housing and health care.

But there are more fundamental factors at play too, and American emeritus psychology professor Maurice L. Farber PhD addresses them in a book in which he offers some hypotheses on suicide and life-threatening behaviour in France. The book is not available for free consultation, but the abstract of its content on Wiley's online library offers a lot of well-informed pointers to his thinking;

The relatively high suicide rate in France is investigated and a number of influences are hypothesized as causative. These include, on a societal and demographic level, a history of high immigration, low emigration, a high proportion of old people, high urbanization, extraordinarily high alcoholism, and the extreme gap in income between upper and lower classes. The rigid bureaucracy of the state can leave the individual feeling infuriated and defeated. The legal system produces many injustices, such as long imprisonment without charges. The Church is liberal and supplies little prophylaxis against suicide. Overall, social integration must be judged to be low. Culturally, French values include an underlying pessimism, no strong fear of death, strong pressures to behave correctly and much malice toward neighbors. The modal personality structure contains defensive, constricted elements producing a vulnerable pseudo-autonomy. French child-rearing practices are effective in producing such personalities.

Much of what he writes rings true for me even though I am not an expert. French society is not a happy one and many people adopt a defensive stance when in public. In fact my sister, who was visiting me here in Lyon during what was her first-ever visit to France, asked me the following question after only 2 days - "is France in a period of national mourning?" When I asked why she had asked that question she replied that "people rarely speak to each other and they look glum and depressed. It's not like that in Britain that's for sure." She was perfectly right.

I believe that another reason may find its roots in the way France educates its children. The French education system does not encourage creativity and children are often told by teachers that they are "nul" ('useless') if they make mistakes. The inevitable result is that many suffer from a lack of self-esteem. Indeed, being judged to be overly-confident is a 'minus point' and so is self-congratulation and being different to others. I remember pumping my fist in the air with a resounding "yes!" at work once in the days when I worked for other people because I was particularly pleased at how my hard work had obtained good results under difficult circumstances. Whereupon my boss promptly intervened to inform me that being self-congratulatory was akin to crowing and as such it was "unseemly behaviour." His reaction was, I believe, a direct result of his education in a system which discourages being happy with one's work and is quick to criticise.

All of which explans why many people are wary of the reactions of others, and it is also why many French people are relatively isolated on a psychological level. This lack of self-esteem is often cited by French researchers and others who have been racking their brains for years to try and understand why the French are, according to studies, one of the most unhappy populations in the world. In fact one recent OECD study actually found that the French are even more pessimistic about their future than are the inhabitants of Afghanistan and Iraq!

Still, whatever the reasons for France's high suicide rates, one may be certain that unless and until some of the more rigid and alienating aspects of France's societal structures are addressed and improved upon, the French media will continue to publish its daily litany of depressing and vaguely absent-minded four-line articles which relate the sad details of yet more suicides.....


  1. i read your article about suicides and people being in a very mad mood,sad, glum and you are right, french people lack self-esteem, we are depressed by the different governments, who always say we have got to go thru this fake economic crisis, we have got to make efforts.All these politicians succeeded in destroying the french society, by putting such a pressure with the euro, they are killing ourselves, we cannot even go the dentist, it is so much expensive, the welfare system is collapsing, ageing people cannot afford anything, they are broke.I foresee an upcoming upraisal this year in france, like a social revolution, a very violent one, worse than in the former Yugoslavia.

  2. I have been struggling to chivy a notaire along more that 2 years after my husbands death to sort out the 'succession' only to receive the gallicshrug. Other friends are struggling with divorce years after they would have received their decree nisi in the uk. you are absolutely right in saying that the French delight in holding people back, making them suffer.

  3. a friend who was a gendarmerie in Gorron commited suicide, lovely man, lovely family. Pressures of his job. Such a sad loss only 53.

  4. How can you be happy in a country of crooks, liars and cheats? 15 years here and they are truly despicable to be around. I am leaving before I top myself.

  5. I recently returned from France where I have returned to the roots of mother. Upon my return I learned of the most tragic suicide of Robin Williams. My French family, which I have had the pleasure of getting to know, is absolutely amazed at the warmth of Americans. My cousin reminds me again and again about French culture and how I should keep to myself. But another American I know that has made France his home for 22 years, has built a home and did not put up the typical "French Fence" to keep everyone out. After two years he was starting to erect the fence and his neighbors asked him not to. They enjoyed walking by and having their little chats. I plan on making France my home in a couple of years in my retirement and making ministry my hobby. Most of the fine folks reading this will surely think "oh crap, another Bible thumping Evangelist!!" That's OK, I'm quite prepared for the criticism and ridicule. But this I know, all the time honored methods for depression are failing here in the U.S as well as in France. I don't plan on shoving anything down anyones throat or trying to change their culture, I just want them to have "hope". After 40 years of living in dark anger because of circumstances in my life, I have found peace and hope that transcends anything that drugs or counseling fails. If I can share that with one person, to God be the glory. My war is against despair and the darkness that covers France. My weapon is the Love of Christ.