View from here - Tragedies with no second acts

19th March 2010 at 00:00
Finland's educational psychologists say they are 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 international 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 who were studying at a vocational school. The outcry led to government promises of more funding for school psychologists.

Tuomo Tikkanen, president of the Finnish Psychological Association, said: "Pupils between six and 16 have the right to have access to 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 massacres. But that legislation has not been passed."

Classroom teachers in high schools have standard meetings with a school psychologist at which they judge each of their pupils according to certain mental health criteria. Pupils deemed "at risk" are then encouraged to see the mental health professional.

But 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 said. "Some of these medications can lead to side-effects, including suicidal feelings."

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."

Outi Luoma-Aho, counsellor for legal affairs at the Education Ministry, is less positive. "We don't have enough school psychologists," she said. "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."

One change which has occurred in Finland is that there has been plenty of fervent discussion over why the country is "violent".

Mr Tikkanen, partly at least, blames Finland's "silent culture". He explained: "There is a lot of loneliness, a lot of not speaking, not expressing feelings and this is not healthy."

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