Depression in the “World’s Happiest Country”: Notions of Social Exclusion in Finland

Written by Johanna Poggemann


When reading up on Finland’s global rankings, one comes across a lot of positive reports: It is supposed to be the most stable (The Global Economy 2021) and the freest country in the world alongside Sweden and Norway (Freedom House 2021) while also having the best education and life satisfaction (OECD 2021). Overall, it is said to be the happiest country in the world (World Happiness Report 2021). Yet, looking deeper, Finland also reports some of the highest depression cases worldwide (WHO 2017).


I have always wondered about this distinct discrepancy. How can one country top the rankings both for happiness and depression? And how does this affect its people?


Being diagnosed with depression can have several impacts, not only on an individual’s own life but also on their social environment and even the country’s economy. One factor that has not been researched enough in the domain of mental illness in Finland is that of social exclusion. Hence, questions arise: What notions of social exclusion can be found in the exclusion of the depressed in Finland?  How are depressed people excluded from Finnish society and what concept of social exclusion can be used to grasp what is happening?


This was the goal for a paper I have written in my “Social Exclusion” class, building on the works of Ruth Levitas (2005), Hilary Silver (1994) and Amartya Sen (2000).  Here, I would now like to present an excerpt of my findings, focusing solely on the analysis of the social exclusion of the depressed in Finland through the lens of Sen’s work. I have chosen Sen because, in my paper, his theory proved to be the most fruitful for this goal.


Definition of Social Exclusion

Amartya (2000) is an Indian economist and philosopher who has made contributions to several fields of study. In his works, he connects social exclusion to a specific term – capability deprivation. The capability deprivation approach is multidimensional and defined by its focus on the moral significance of individuals’ “distinct capabilities and functioning that [they] have reason to value” (ibid.: 4). In other words, it is a normative approach that concentrates on the actual capability of persons to achieve their well-being rather than their mere freedom or right to do so. One aspect which can be seen as an example of how capability deprivation takes the form of social exclusion is “being able to appear in public without shame” (ibid.: 4). This corresponds to the significance of participating in community life and living a social life. Focusing primarily on poverty, Sen emphasises that social deprivation/the inability to interact freely with others is an important implication for social exclusion. Another aspect is employment. According to Sen, being excluded from the opportunity of employment may lead to economic impoverishment which, in turn, may lead to other deprivations such as homelessness or undernourishment (ibid.: 5). As a result, social exclusion can be seen as both a part of capability deprivation and a cause of different capability failures (ibid.).


Depression in Finland

Finland has the highest estimated incidence of mental disorders in the EU (close to one in five) (OECD 2020). The most common mental disorders, anxiety, and depression, affect above 7% of Finns. While these can affect people for a couple of weeks or months, they can also last a lifetime (ibid.). Finland also places 9th worldwide among countries with the highest depression rates (World Population Review 2021). While the prevalence of mental illnesses appears to have remained mostly stable in Finland over the past 30 years (Pulkki-Råback et al. 2012), socio-economic health differences have increased and are larger than in many other European countries. Correspondingly, mental disorders currently constitute the number one cause of early retirement. Particularly depression poses a more serious threat to the economy and working life than any other disease group (ibid.), which also has serious social/societal implications.


Notions of Social Exclusion of Depressed People in Finland

When looking at the relationship between social exclusion and depression, it is firstly important to mention links that have already been identified in earlier research. With this in mind, mental illness as a whole is a rather particular case in social exclusion research because it is both a basis and a result of social exclusion. Thus, the relationship between social exclusion and depression can be described as reciprocal: Depression can lead to social exclusion through a lack of financial resources, low self-esteem, loss of social interactions or stigma connected to the disease (Payne 2013). In turn, poverty and social exclusion can also result in an increased risk of depression (ibid.).


Economy and Poverty

In line with Sen’s definition, the economy with its components is an important factor to consider for the social exclusion of depression in Finland. Finland has also been found to have one of the strongest income gradients in health and low income was found to correlate with depression in the working-age population (Pulkki-Råback et al. 2012). Economic inequalities start to appear already in early adulthood, hence, much earlier than in other Scandinavian countries (Huijts, Eikemo, & Skalická 2010). Also, while poverty in Finland is not likely to be a topic of satisfying basic needs, low income is still associated with adversities in daily life. Hence, statistically, low-income households “perceive more threats in the neighbourhood, have poorer living conditions, feel disconnected from the community and perceive low control at work” (Pulkki-Råback et al. 2012: 331). Regarding exclusion from the labour market, several Finnish studies point to a link between unemployment and mental illness (Liimatainen 2000: 7). In relation, somatic diseases, mental illness, and suicide were found to be more common among the unemployed in Finland (ibid.), showcasing again that unemployment can be both the cause and effect of mental illness. This can be seen in accordance with Sen’s capability deprivation as one form of exclusion can ultimately lead to another.


In addition, another group of social actors could also be found to be economically excluded from paid work: adolescents. According to a birth cohort study of people born in Finland in 1987, adolescents who had received a mental illness diagnosis in the past were often excluded from the labour market as well as from education as young adults (Science Daily 2021; University of Turku 2021). Lastly, the increase in sickness absence due to depression is another factor that connects exclusion from paid work with mental illness in Finland (Blomgren & Perhoniemi 2021).



Yet, the act of being absent from work does not only correspond to economic exclusion, but it also has social implications. Depressed people do not only choose to be absent from work because of their symptoms, but also due to fear of being stigmatised for it (ibid.). Sen even specifically speaks about the freedom to live non impoverished lives as a way of “being able to appear in public without shame” (Sen 2000: 4). Shame is often connected to stigma[1] and stigma is a prominent societal impact factor for depression in Finland. According to a Finnish study, most respondents believed that depressed people are not responsible for their illness, but for their recovery (Aromaa 2011: 7). Thus, many negative traits are attributed to depression and negative consequences are linked with disclosing the diagnosis to others. Here, gender, education and language also play a role as women, people with higher education and those with Swedish as their mother tongue were less likely to hold negative stereotypes (Aromaa 2011; Wahlbeck & Aromaa 2011). In another study, 23% of surveyed Finns said that they would not want to live next door to a mentally ill person and 47% of those who suffer from a mental illness said that they have been stigmatised because of it (Ministry of Social Affairs and Health 2020: 27). In addition, depressed people also reported being afraid of becoming stigmatised in the health care system (Aromaa 2011). Overall, these examples help to show how stigma, as a specific societal and moral factor, can lead to social exclusion. Here, the refusal to engage with depressed people is specifically relevant.



As ever so often when it comes to research, I was left with more questions than answers after finishing my paper. There are still several factors that could/should be looked at when trying to grasp the role of social exclusion in Finland’s discrepancy between happiness and depression. : How are the power structures between the included and the excluded? Who has access to care, who makes that decision and what restrictions are there? How is the situation for non-Finnish speakers, immigrants, or asylum-seekers in Finland (cf. The Nomad Today 2019), youth (cf. Wrede-Jantti 2017) and women in comparison to men (cf. Pulkki-Råback et al. 2012)?


Considering the social exclusion of the depressed within a more group-specific focus would also allow to emphasise as well as assess the multidimensional aspect of social exclusion more. Hence, my paper as well as this blog post only serve as a first glance into the field of tension between social exclusion and depression in Finland – encouraging everyone to contribute to the research.



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Finland. National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL). Research 69, Helsinki, Finland 2011. Viewed 30 October 2021,

Blomgren, J., & Perhoniemi, R. (2021): Increase in sickness absence due to mental disorders in

Finland: trends by gender, age and diagnostic group in 2005–2019. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health. DOI: 10.1177/1403494821993705.

Freedom House (2021): Countries and Territories. Freedom House. Viewed 28 October 2021,

Huijts T, Eikemo TA, Skalická V. (2010): Income-related health inequalities in the Nordic

countries: examining the role of education, occupational class, and age. Soc Sci Med, vol. 71, pp. 1964–1972.

Levitas R. (2005): Three discourses of social exclusion. In The Inclusive Society?.

Palgrave Macmillan, London. DOI: 10.1057/9780230511552_2.

Liimatainen, M.-R. (2000): Mental Health in the workplace. Situation Analysis Finland.

International Labour Office Geneva. Viewed 30 October 2021,

Ministry of Social Affairs and Health (2020): National Mental Health Strategy and

Programme for Suicide Prevention 2020-2030. Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, Helsinki. Viewed 20 October 2021,

OECD (2021): Education. OECD Better Life Index. Viewed 28 October 2021,

OECD (2020): Finland’s mental health challenge. OECD library. 25 February 2020. Viewed

30 October 2021,

Payne, S. (2013): Mental Health, Poverty and Social Exclusion. Conceptual note no. 9, ESRC

Economic & Social Research Council, University of Bristol. Viewed 30 October 2021,

Pulkki-Råback, L., Ahola, K., Elovainio, M., Kivimäki, M., Hintsanen, M., Isometsä, E.,

Lönnqvist, J., & Virtanen, M. (2012): Socio-economic position and mental disorders in a working-age Finnish population: the health 2000 study. European journal of public health, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 327–332. DOI: 10.1093/eurpub/ckr127.

Science Daily (2021): Psychiatric disorders in teenage years associated with social exclusion

in later life. Science Daily. 8 October 2021. Viewed 30 October 2021,

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Papers No. 1). Asian Development Bank. Viewed 30 October 2021,

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Viewed 28 October 2021,

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and anxiety. The Nomad Today. 18 June 2019. Viewed 30 October 2021,

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Exclusion in Later Life. University of Turku. 08 October 2021. Viewed 30 October 2021,

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is being done? Norden Nordic Centre for Welfare and Social Issues, Helsinki.


[1] “Stigma is common toward persons with mental health problems and can be defined as a label that sets a person apart from others, links her or him with undesirable characteristics and leads to avoidance by others in society” (Aromaa 2011: 7). It is highly based on societal norms as well as cultural expectation of what is considered “normal” behaviour (ibid.).

The Start of Another Antiracist Reading List

It is September again, meaning a new start to our Monthly Antiracist Reading List. This year we are going to recommend books to our audience with the help of three themes. These themes will assist in categorizing the book and give them more context and help readers understand what specialization, subject or concern the book in question wants to raise. We will recommend three books per theme, equaling to nine recommended books this academic year.


The first theme of this semester will be GENDER EQUALITY. Gender equality highlights different gender inequalities and gives an overview of equity between the genders in different areas of society. Many see gender equality as a binary question, only targeting issues between men and women, however, the issue is much more complex. Within Gender Equality one also must consider race, religion, sexuality, nationality, and class, to mention a few aspects since they all give depth and context to gender-related struggles.



Additionally, gender is not a duality, but gender is rather a fluid concept where people can identify as they desire. Understanding this complexity is also an issue one can discuss from a Gender Equality perspective and something we want to expand on with some of our reading suggestions.


The first book within the theme of Gender Equality is already up! It is Sex and Lies by Leila Slimani, who discusses the taboo of female sexuality in Morocco.

For All Those Whose Cares Have Been Our Concern

Written by Tinka Harvard


“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water.”

—Bruce Lee


Flip Schulke - 4 Artworks for Sale on Artsy
Boxing legend Muhammad Ali (photograph by Flip Schulke)

Few people in my life don’t know that I have run into unexpected racism in Finland, where I am pursuing a master’s degree in Social Exclusion at Åbo Akademi University. I say unexpected because Finland had previously been a place of refuge for me. Nature there can be soothing and healing—ample space exists there to stretch out one’s whole self and to take deep breaths. It is a place where one can roam and find herself. It is a reserved culture bending toward silence. On its better days, it is a respectful culture marked by individuality, which is ironic given its admirable socialism. With help and insight from friends and with my own personal experiences, I have come to understand that Finland, too, is included in the historical xenophobia that permeates Europe, and the racism remains. Oftentimes, the “sins of the fathers” fall to new generations if anti-racism is not a priority.


I think of this because I ran across a word recently with which I was not familiar: “Enneagram.” It caught my attention because I heard a woman say that she was a number Two type, for those familiar with the Enneagram of Personality. The woman said, more specifically, that she was a number Two, a helper, and that she likes to help people. I thought to myself: I am like that, too. I enjoy helping. Perhaps I am a Two type as well, whatever that means.


For some reason, the above ideas simultaneously floated around in my mind with my childhood experiences of fighting. I used to fight all the time when I was a child. This phase in my life ended around the age of fourteen, at which time, I am guessing, I learned to walk away from trouble—no small feat given that trouble had a way of walking toward me. I would go on walks for hours around my Brooklyn neighborhood, and when I was a bit older, I would visit different neighborhoods around Brooklyn and then in Manhattan. This practice is still with me, and I continue to take long walks wherever I am around the world as a way to bring peace to my life.


The point of this tale is that my mild-mannered and easygoing personality and my slowness to anger seemed to be an invitation to other children in my neighborhood to heap abuse upon me. The boundaries of my own emotional and physical safety were constantly being attacked. The thing is, I have outgrown the need to physically fight back to protect myself like I needed to do as a kid. Now, I usually distance myself from bullying or disrespect by walking away.


That said, it is hard to walk away from racism because it permeates society and lurks in the hearts of far too many. My mind has been spinning concerning this subject for quite some time now trying to figure out how to care for and protect myself. Personal experiences of racism are difficult to prepare for because each one presents itself in a new and seemingly creative way.


I have been frustrated with my inability to figure out how to get people to “back off” in their mistreatment, but I have tried to be kind with myself. What came to me in an instant after quite a bit of contemplation—months if not years or a lifetime of it—is that the problem does not lie with me and what I am unable to do. The problem lies in the aggressor, the transgressor of boundaries.


“Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”

—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It is a revelation and a relief for me to learn that I do not have to figure out a new way to be. I simply can be my natural self. And when I find myself in the midst of hurtful people and difficult situations and when others feel encouraged to be abusive because of the color of my skin or my mild manner, I can remind the aggressors that they are sorely mistaken and that the problem is with them. This is a nonviolent way for me to “fight back” and to protect my body and heart from the transgressors of boundaries. We all suffer injustices and can speak out in this and other ways against them.


“For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die.”

—Senator Ted Kennedy



Master’s degree speech

On June 21st 2022 I, Jasmin Slimani, had the privilege to have a speech to the graduating bachelor’s and master’s degree students. In my speech, I wanted to be honest about the current rough times affecting all students along with how the life of a student is filled with highs and lows, but regardless we succeed and we are now eagerly waiting for new adventures. Below is my written speech.


Dear audience, welcome

Kära publik, välkommen

Rakas yleisö, tervetuloa


I want to start by thanking the faculty for the opportunity to have this speech at this graduation ceremony of both bachelors’ and masters’ students from the faculty of Arts, Psychology and Theology. I feel privileged, lucky, and honored to be standing up here in front of you all.


Jag vill först tacka er alla för att jag får stå här uppe framför er alla dimitterade och era familjer, vänner och partner, för att hålla detta års dimissionstal. Trots att Åbo Akademi är ett finlandssvenskt universitet, måst vi inte glömma den breda diversiteten vi har av studenter, doktorander, forskare och annan personal. Bland annat, har vi även i dag en handfull av studerande som dimitteras från det internationella magisterprogrammet, Social Exclusion, som är det enda internationella magisterprogrammet här på Fakulteten för humaniora, psykologi och teologi. Därmed kommer jag även att köra detta tal främst på engelska, ett språk som är mer inkluderande i detta rum.


And for those who just sat cluelessly wondering what I was saying, I basically said that I will be doing this speech in English since otherwise many in the audience will not understand me.


As many of you might wonder, who am I and why am I standing here before you. And to answer the latter question first, and to be honest, when I was asked to have this year’s speech I was startled. I started thinking immediately about all the inspirational things I could say, the witty puns and jokes to lighten up the mood and of course also what I should not say in this speech. Regardless, here I am now, still taken by surprise at how I ended up here, maybe I am here because I like to speak and when I do I tend to speak a lot. This was also one of the reasons why I did my master’s thesis partially in the form of a three-part podcast series. As less writing and more talking is the way to go for me.


Going then to who am I. I’m Jasmin Slimani and I moved here to Turku in 2016, right after graduating high school, thinking of myself as mature, when moving from my childhood home. How cute of me. After finishing my bachelor’s studies, I wanted to continue right away with a master’s, and luckily, I was admitted into the Social Exclusion master’s program, which I started in the fall of 2019. Going into a master’s I looked forward to the upcoming two years of studies. Things that I eagerly waited for were meeting and hanging out with new people, making new friends, partaking in events, and exploring Turku in new ways. But as we know the past two years did not go as anyone could have planned.


The hopes of having study circles turned into sitting alone by the computer. The hopes of having student events turned into having dance parties at home alone. And the hopes of creating new supportive communities turned into a need of finding that support from within.


In hopes of not only escaping the situation here in Finland but because I really wanted to do something else than the usual studies, I decided in the fall of 2020 to do an internship abroad. I wanted an unforgettable experience, and to travel a bit further away from the comfortableness of Europe. Hence, I packed my bags with Dar es Salam, in Tanzania as my destination. The hope and idea were to work with girls and women and aid them in any way possible. This included things like, educating them on different issues like sexual health and consent, giving tools of empowerment, and helping these girls and women be more economically independent. But even if I was filled with excitement and eagerness, it didn’t take long for me to realize that the NGO I was working for was money-hungry, didn’t want to make an actual change and the whole organization was run by a greedy fella. Although the internship itself left much to be desired, the experience was unforgettable. I learned a lot about myself in relation to my environment, I met some great and funny people and the beautiful and colorful nature that I was lucky to experience will always stay vibrantly in my mind.


I think I am not alone when I say that the past years have been a rollercoaster. It has been filled with unexpected turns, some occasional laughter, and a feeling of rush in your stomach, but there have also been times when you just want to scream. Furthermore, I do not think I am the only one who will admit that the past two years of studies have been incredibly difficult and lonely, not to mention exhausting. The mix of living in a state of uncertainty, boredom, and stress, has definitely not been a positive contributor to one’s studies.


Despite everything, the ups and downs that these past years have resulted in, I am not looking back at the time with regret. Having lived and studied through a difficult time and to finally be on the other side, I can gladly say that I have grown. I am not the same little 18-year-old wide-eyed girl who thought of myself as mature when moving to another city. But what I now can say, is that I am at least a wiser 24-year-old, who still has plenty to learn but is grateful for the journey so far. I hope that you all graduates can also see the growth within yourselves. I might not know most of you on a personal level, but I do think that each and every one of you has had battles to go thru or still have obstacles to overcome, however, I want to say that all your journeys are valid, plus you have already come a long way. Whether you see it or not, I can promise you that you have grown compared to who you were two, three or five years ago. For instance, look back at pictures of yourself from a while back and you might look at them with a slight feeling of embarrassment or detachment and that shows a certain growth from the person in the picture. Or for instance, can you have seen yourselves sitting here today, a year ago? or even six months ago? I can say that I did not expect myself to be here, so in honor of you, all graduating pat yourselves on the shoulder because you all have done a great job and you all should be proud.


All in all, the past years have presented some of the lowest lows but also some great highs. I have met people I would not have met if I hadn’t chosen Turku to be the place of my studies. I have explored what this city has to offer and found a new love and calmness in nature. I have been more politically invested and I feel stronger and more confident about my opinions and ideology. My time as a student has been fruitful, brought me confidence, and allowed me to grow into the person you all see today. And I wish you all graduates can also list things that your time as students at Åbo Akademi University have granted you.


Slutligen vill jag önska er alla lycka till med alla era nya äventyr.

All that is now left to say is that I wish you all the best of luck in all your upcoming adventures.


Tack! Kiitos! Thank you!