Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Downside of Reading

March 5th, 2009 · 7 Comments

In scanning the World Health Organization’s latest compilation of suicide rates, you can’t help but wonder why self-slaughter is so prevalent in Eastern Europe. All of the highest rates occur in countries from the former Soviet Bloc, such as Lithuania (68.1 males per 100,000) and Belarus (63.3). The rate in the United States, by contrast, is 17.7. (Males off themselves much more frequently than females, so suicide research usually focuses on men; I’ll follow up with a post on the ladies next week.)

Some of the factors are obvious: Poverty, alcohol use, and lousy weather. But there may be something else going on here, too—a connection between literacy and suicide. Educational attainment in post-Soviet nations is relatively high, at least compared to similarly poor countries in Asia and South America. According to this piece from the Central European Review, skilled readers are more prone to take their own lives than less literate peers:

According to Maruai’s theory, the higher any given country’s literacy rate and the lower that country’s GNP, the more likely the country is to have a high suicide rate. The theory can be convincingly applied to the countries with the highest suicide rates in Europe, namely the three Baltic states, Hungary and Slovenia, where literacy is at almost 100 percent and where the GNP and standard of living have been adversely affected by the transition process.

Western European and Mediterranean countries have lower literacy rates, more stable GNPs and, accordingly, lower suicide rates. Maruai maintains that better-educated people, especially in countries in transition, are more conscious of their current lower social and economic positions and are therefore more likely to resort to suicide. Furthermore, such people are more familiar with more effective means of taking their own lives, thereby increasing the suicide rate.

In other words, intellectual achievement makes the human mind far more susceptible to existential angst, which in turn leads to suicidal ideation. Maybe Thomas Gray had a point, though certainly not the one he intended.

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