Swedish psychiatrist: Swedes err excessively on the side of caution
New book describes nation of "security junkies"
By Kalle Koponen in Stockholm
The underground train pulls into the station in Stockholm, when a concerned female voice comes out of the loudspeakers. "Consider the distance between the train and the platform when you step out."
So, is this a very big leap, an inexperienced person might wonder. No it isn't. In fact, the chasm is not frightful at all. It's just a gap of ten centimetres, which thousands of Stockholm residents step over every day. And every day, they are warned of this challenge.
his exemplifies the Swedish mentality very well. Some experts have started to call it "security addiction". Officials and the media bomb people with prohibitions, restrictions, and alarming information about the dangers of foodstuffs, traffic, and other everyday phenomena.
Although life has become safer than ever in all Western countries, people feel less secure than ever. Sweden is one of the leaders in this development.
"Unfortunately we are in the forefront of security matters", says psychiatrist David Eberhard. "Other countries should take heed of this - otherwise all of Europe will soon be filled with Swedes", he laughs. "That would be disastrous!"
Eberhard works as the head of a ward at the psychiatric out-patient clinic at St. Göran's hospital in Stockholm. He will soon have a book published, in which he takes a poke at Swedish society. The book is called In the Land of the Security Junkies.
According to Eberhard, the folkhemmet ("people's home") society, which takes care of everything, behaves like a patient suffering from a panic disorder, who wants to avoid unpleasant situations at any price.
"Officials have a tendency to wrap us up in cotton. For instance, there are no schools in Stockholm where the kids would be allowed to have snowball fights in the playground."
Swedish officials take their work seriously.
"Wherever there are people, there is a risk of being hurt. Theoretically all people in all age groups constitute potential risk groups." The quotation is from the web site of the Swedish National Institute of Public Health.
Researchers find new dangers almost every day, and the press carries news reports on them. A few recent headlines from Swedish newspapers are revealing: "Headphones can make you deaf" (Aftonbladet), "Swimming can make a baby sick" (Aftonbladet), "Stress increases risk of cancer" (Svenska Dagbladet), "Cancer drug can cause heart ailment" (Svenska Dagbladet), "Sausage increases risk of stomach cancer" (Dagens Nyheter), "Short-legged people at risk of obesity" (Aftonbladet), and "Snoring increases health risks for children" (Dagens Nyheter).
"We think that we will survive if we shut out everything that is dangerous from our environment. However, the death rate for human beings is still 100 percent."
Eberhard started thinking about security addiction at his work after noticing that people were seeking psychiatric help for increasingly trivial problems.
"Since the 1960s, a generation has been growing up at gathering speed, which handles setbacks poorly." He speaks of so-called "curling parents", who desperately try to sweep away every rough spot from their children's paths.
"If people are protected from all unpleasantness as children, the pain is twice as bad when facing something unpleasant as an adult sooner or later."
As Eberhard sees it, the state in Sweden operates like a curling parent, trying to prohibit everything that can be seen as risky behaviour.
"My point is not that people should indulge in risky behaviour. What I'm saying is that riding a bicycle without a helmet is not dangerous. It is not high-risk behaviour, and neither is eating a perch."
Eberhard nevertheless does not say that officials who churn out prohibitions and warnings, or the media who report them, would be mean-spirited.
"The whole Western world is currently based on the principle of caution. According to this principle, it is better to be too careful than not careful enough." In Eberhard's view, the clearest example of this can be seen in attitudes toward children.
"Nowadays people think that you can never be too careful. The risk is minimal that something might happen when my eight-year-old daughter is sitting on the back seat without a seat belt. However, the thinking here is that if it is at all within the realm of possibilities for something to happen, measures need to be taken. This is the point where psychiatry starts talking about compulsive neurosis."
"For instance, a compulsive neurotic needs to check again and again that the door is locked. With children nowadays we are compulsively neurotic. No risk of any kind is acceptable, no matter how small the hazard actually is."
"Problems arise in society when officials start behaving in the same way. People stop thinking. The minister of justice tells young women to stay away from parks, because of the danger of getting raped. In reality, the risk of being raped would be smaller if there were more young women in parks."
From a Swedish perspective, Eberhard's thoughts are quite shocking. However, he says that very similar thoughts are quite common in the field of mental health. He an many others feel that therapeutic discussions - crisis counselling - that is offered to rescue or care personnel after dramatic situations at work are a sham. However, a society suffering from compulsive neurosis cannot give them up.
"An ambulance driver needs empathy, not therapy. He needs someone to pat him on the back and say, ‘it wasn't your fault'."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 13.8.2006
KALLE KOPONEN / Helsingin Sanomat