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Feeling down in Denmark?

Depression is more common in Denmark than its top-three World Happiness ranking suggests, and foreigners face extra challenges. Columnist Sarah Redohl investigates.

Photographs: Unsplash

Text: Sarah Redohl

The first article I ever wrote for The International was about Denmark's ranking (once again) as one of the world's happiest countries. So that's why I was somewhat surprised to recently learn that one in five Danes struggle with depression at some point, according to the National Board of Health (Sundhedsstyrelsen).

In Denmark, 92 percent of the population is considered to be "thriving" in life, according to a report from Denmark's own Happiness Research Institute. Although well above average, that leaves 8 percent of people in Denmark who are either considered to be struggling or suffering.

Shadow of happiness

According to the author of the report, Michael Birkjær, one possible theory behind the data is "the high frequency of happy people that makes it hard for others to feel good about themselves and their lives."

Basically, when people see others enjoying life - whether on social media or during a September evening stroll along the harbour - we might end up feeling even worse. "Social comparison can become a problem for expats in Denmark if they feel as though they are surrounded by happy people and begin wondering if they should feel happier," said Copenhagen-based psychologist Max Pedersen.

He thinks social comparison itself isn't the problem; rather, it's how one copes with those thoughts. "When you feel as though you are less happy than others, it may trigger unpleasant feelings and a desire to see this as a problem that needs to be solved," Pedersen said. "Such a coping mechanism may in itself give rise to a real problem, overthinking or rumination. An alternative coping mechanism is to focus on taking action on something that is intrinsically valuable as opposed to getting rid of emotional experiences that are normal."

For example, finding ways to express ourselves in a new environment.

Always the odd one out?

According to the Happiness Research Institute's report, aptly named "In the Shadow of Happiness," one of the primary factors contributing to struggling and suffering in Denmark is loneliness.

"In Denmark, you often hear that expats have a hard time breaking into Danish social circles," Birkjær said, adding that loneliness is one of the "most potent sources of misery and unhappiness."

"Everyone knows the feeling of feeling alone at a party where everyone else is having fun," said Aarhus-based psychologist Berit Mus Christensen. "When you're a foreigner, you're always, to some extent, the odd one out."

"One of the primary factors contributing to struggling and suffering in Denmark is loneliness."

Having lived abroad herself, she's experienced this firsthand in several countries. "You'll most likely always have an accent, you won't get the childhood songs that make people who grew up here tear up," she said. "Even if you are super well-integrated, there will always be things that would leave anyone feeling like an outsider."

Moving to and navigating within a different culture than the one in which you grew up, or 'bicultural stress', is a recognised challenge for anyone, Christensen said. In her practice, she has noticed that people with a history of, for instance, social anxiety and depression sometimes experience a rise in symptoms when they first move to Denmark. "If you direct that feeling of alienation inward instead of accepting it as a normal reaction to uncommon circumstances, it could intensify anxiety and depression."

A good first step, she said, is to talk to other expats in an emotionally open way. "I think it's important to realise these are normal human reactions to the specific context of being an expat, no matter where you move from or to," Christensen said.

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