Dr Andrej Maruai, a Slovene psychiatrist involved in organizing the conference, presented a paper called "Suicide in Europe: Genetics, Literacy and Poverty" which convincingly shows the links between the social factors of literacy and poverty, and suicidal behavior. . . . 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.
Reading this I was immediately reminded of those powerful scenes from Frederick Douglass’s Narrative that involve his rise to literacy. Sophia Auld, the wife of his master, started to teach him to read but was reproached by her husband, who told her that literacy “would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become manageable and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” Much later, Douglass began to feel that in many ways Hugh Auld was correct. “I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but offered me no ladder upon which to get out.” Those of us who love reading often praise its ability to open our eyes to other worlds, other lives, other possibilities. We don't often pause to note that such opening can, for some, be a mixed blessing at best.