View from here - Tragedies with no second acts

12th March 2010 at 00:00
Finland's psychologists say the country is still waiting for the systemic changes promised after two school massacres, writes Ed Dutton

Finland's school psychologists are furious that an overhaul of counselling for pupils, promised in the wake of two school massacres, has still not been implemented.

The country made headlines in 2007 and 2008 when former pupils rampaged through their schools. At Jokela High School, 18-year-old Per-Erik Auvinen gunned down eight people and wounded 12 before shooting himself. Less than a year later, again before committing suicide, 22-year-old Matti Saari shot dead 10 students at a vocational school. The outcry led to government promises of more funding for school psychologists.

Tuomo Tikkanen, president of the Finnish Psychological Association, explains: "Pupils between six and 16 have the right to access a school psychologist. The government clearly promised to extend this to pupils over 16, those at academic school or vocational school. This would have covered both of the students who committed the school massacres. But that legislation has not been passed."

Classroom teachers in high schools have standard meetings with a school psychologist at which they judge their pupils against certain mental health criteria.

"This helps them to spot the pupils who maybe need help," says Mr Tikkanen, himself a former school psychologist. Pupils deemed "at risk" are then encouraged to see the mental health professional.

Such care was not offered to either of the killers. "Both were already clients of our municipal health service and they were just given pills," Mr Tikkanen says. "Some of these medications can lead to side effects including suicidal feelings."

Mr Tikkanen is insistent that "pills don't do the trick" and you need to sit down with a psychologist to talk through your feelings. "But there are no resources for this on the municipal health service and it is still only offered up to age 16 in schools."

For Mr Tikkanen, the current system is partly responsible for the school massacres.

Vesa Rantahalvari, a civil servant in the health ministry, disagrees. "We have increased resources to mental healthcare services aimed at young people over the last 10 years. The number of psychiatrists and psychologists has increased.

"However, the system is not working as it should. We still have a lot of work to do before supply of these services meets demand."

Outi Luoma-Aho, counsellor for legal affairs at the Education Ministry, is less positive. "We don't have enough school psychologists," she says. "In many areas there is one for many schools. And there have been no specific changes since the massacres, other than that every school must have a plan of what to do if there is a shooting there."

One change has been plenty of discussion about why the country is "violent". Mr Tikkanen, partly at least, blames Finland's "silent culture". "There is a lot of loneliness, a lot of not speaking, not expressing feelings and this is not healthy," he says.

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