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Open Access Research article

The copycat phenomenon after two Finnish school shootings: an adolescent psychiatric perspective

Nina Lindberg1*, Eila Sailas2 and Riittakerttu Kaltiala-Heino3

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Adolescent Psychiatry, Helsinki University Central Hospital, PO Box 590, 00029 HUS Helsinki, Finland

2 Kellokoski Hospital, 04500 Kellokoski, Finland

3 Department of Adolescent Psychiatry, University of Tampere, Vanha Vaasa Hospital and Tampere University Hospital, 33380, Pitkäniemi, Finland

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BMC Psychiatry 2012, 12:91  doi:10.1186/1471-244X-12-91

Published: 28 July 2012

Abstract

Background

Two school shootings with altogether 18 victims took place in Finland in November 2007 and September 2008. Homicides and suicides are both associated with the copycat phenomenon. The aim of the present study was to characterize adolescent copycats who had threatened to carry out a school massacre.

Methods

The nation-wide study evaluated 77 13- to 18-year-old adolescents who were sent for adolescent psychiatric evaluations between 8.11.2007 and 30.6.2009, one of the reasons for evaluation being a threat of massacre at school. The medical files of the copycats were retrospectively analysed using a special data collection form. Data on demographics, family- and school-related issues, previous psychiatric treatment and previous delinquency, current symptoms, family adversities and psychiatric diagnoses were collected. The severity of the threat expressed and the risk posed by the adolescent in question were evaluated. The Psychopathy Checklist Youth Version was used to assess psychopathic traits.

Results

All of the copycats were native Finns with a mean age of 15.0 years. Almost two thirds of them had a history of previous mental health treatment before the index threat. Almost two thirds of the copycats suffered from anxiety and depressive symptoms, and almost half of the sample expressed either suicidal ideation or suicidal plans. Behavioural problems including impulse control problems, aggressive outbursts, the destruction of property as well as non-physical and physical violence against other persons were common. The diagnosis groups highlighted were behavioural and emotional disorders, mood disorders as well as schizophrenia-related disorders. The prevalence of pervasive developmental disorders was high. Only one of the copycats was assessed as expressing high traits of psychopathy.

Conclusion

The copycats with school massacre threats were characterized with a high prevalence of mental and behavioural disorders. Like actual school shooters, they showed psychotic symptoms and traumatic experiences, but unlike the shooters, the copycats were not psychopathic.