Grenfell Tower fire survivors 'failed by NHS mental health professionals'

Two years on from the Grenfell Tower fire, survivors and North Kensington residents say they’re still waiting for adequate mental health support.

The Central North West London (CNWL) NHS trust has been providing a Grenfell specific mental health support service in the aftermath of the tragedy but after a local campaigner for the victims of the fire killed herself and other Grenfell survivors say they have slipped through the net, community members are questioning how their recovery ought to be handled.

Amanda Beckles, 51, a campaigner who launched the Grenfell Community Monitoring Group to scrutinise Kensington and Chelsea Council’s Grenfell recovery program, was found dead in her bedroom after police were called to her flat on 13 December last year. She lived near Grenfell Tower, on St. Ann’s Road, and left a note saying that the disaster had wrecked her life.

Amanda previously had a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and was re-diagnosed after the fire. She had worked as a community consultant and found herself unable to work after witnessing the tragedy. A delayed response to a benefits application also caused her to struggle financially.

It was said at an inquest that her financial issues combined with what she had witnessed on the night of the fire pushed her to take her own life.

Nabil Chouchair, 44, who lost six family members in the tragedy, has also struggled since the fire but his faith as a practising Muslim has stopped him acting on thoughts of suicide.

‘The thoughts often cross my mind but I don’t do it firstly because of my religion,’ Nabil tells, ‘then because of my duty to my remaining family and to fight to get justice for those that we lost in the fire.’

Every night in my dreams, I die

Dr. Wilcox, who led the inquest, expressed concerns about the effectiveness of the NHS based mental health support services for Grenfell and questioned what learning had come out of Amanda’s case.

She said: ‘I don’t want deckchairs moved around on the Titanic. It is intensely sad, the Grenfell fire has decimated a community and hit the most vulnerable hardest.’

Friends of Amanda feel that her death resulted from the failure of mental health professionals to effectively risk assess her condition. She had received 90 therapy sessions post Grenfell and disclosed suicidal thoughts to her therapist.

The police were called a few days after she missed one of her therapy sessions and her body was found with a note saying, ‘the Grenfell Tower fire has affected me badly, seventeen months on I still suffer from acute anxiety. I really don’t know why it has affected me so badly but it isn’t a life worth living.’

Claire Simmons, 46, who lives just a stone’s throw away from Grenfell, witnessed the disaster.

‘Amanda could have been me or anyone I know from this community,’ says Claire. ‘We have all been profoundly affected and I understand that this is not the first suicide amongst the Grenfell affected community. The much-loved local activist, writer and film maker Tim Burke also took his own life last August.’

Joe Delaney, 39, whose home was in the estate where the charred remains of Grenfell still stands, was evacuated after the fire. He now finds it difficult to even look at the Tower: ‘I saw people falling or jumping from the upper floors. It was brutal.’

One survivor says that although he was with an early psychosis mental health team, they closed his case.

Paul Menacer, 25, who escaped from a sixth floor flat that he shared with his uncle, still suffers from PTSD.

‘A friend called me just after 1am and urged me to get out. My Uncle was in Algeria at time,’ he tells us. ‘To be honest if he had have been here, I don’t think that either of us would have survived because he was disabled.’

He says that he wasn’t able to keep all his therapy appointments because of the trauma he was suffering and that when his Uncle passed away last December he didn’t receive any support from NHS mental health support services for five and a half months: ‘I had good days and bad days but there was no safety net.’

As Paul reflects on the nights’ events, he looks visibly shaken. He tells us: ‘I went down from my flat and knocked on doors on the lower floors but often I think: why didn’t I go up into the Tower to higher floors to try to get more people out?’

Mahad Egal, 32, who escaped the fire, says that there has been a rise in poor mental health in the local community overall since the fire, not just with direct survivors.

Figures from the NHS affirm this. The numbers of mental health admissions in Kensington and Chelsea have consistently risen since the tragedy – 360 were admitted in 2016/17, 354 in 2017/18 and 391 in 2018/19.

Mahad, who lived on the fourth floor with his partner and two children, explains that he’s still suffering flashbacks and nightmares. ‘Every night in my dreams, I die,’ she says. ‘I’ve expressed how I’m feeling to my therapist. I’m finding these sessions somewhat helpful because I can say things that I don’t normally get to say elsewhere.’

NHS England have allocated £50m of extra funding to provide additional physical and mental health services needed by those affected by the fire for another five years.

A spokesperson says that this is intended to cover ‘physical health checks; drug and alcohol dependency; ongoing screening and treatment for mental health trauma. Additionally separately funded well being services are commissioned by the local authority too.’

However Nour-eddine Aboudihaj, the founder of Grenfell Trust, a charitable organisation that supports survivors and bereaved family members is now demanding a ‘complete review’ of the mental health support services provided by CNWL since the fire.

Nour-eddine says: ‘We have had feedback from many people who have been failed and didn’t get the support they needed. It’s been the worst crisis management of vulnerable people, both survivors and bereaved have felt that the mental health support they received has made their case worse rather than better.’

A spokesperson for CNWL said that they can’t comment on individual cases but that ‘one suicide is one too many’. They are now taking advice from Professor Louis Appleby, the chair of the National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Homicide, how best to reduce the risk of the further suicides post Grenfell. ‘We would also be delighted to meet with Grenfell Trust, to hear their concerns and their ideas,’ they said.

Survivors and residents tell that they want a less formalised approach to their recovery and for the £50m NHS England budget to be spent in a way that facilitates this.

Paul explains that he’s now having massage therapy at the Curve Community Centre near Grenfell to aid his wellbeing: ‘We need this centre to stay open, to continue to help survivors. Also I’d like to see more sports activities for the community where people from all parts of the community can come and participate – for stress relief and to engage with people who feel the same way as them.’

Residents have made also the suggestion of setting up a 24-hour well being café where locals and survivors can drop in whenever they need someone to talk to.

‘It’s difficult to keep appointments when you’re suffering from trauma,’ explains Claire. ‘My message to CHWL is to please listen to the residents of North Kensington, please give us the support we need.’

Grenfell estate resident Jacqui Haynes, 53, agrees and says that service providers need to understand that a one size approach doesn’t fit all.

‘The reaction to this unprecedented disaster calls for unprecedented service structure and delivery of mental health support,’ says Jacqui. ‘Service providers need to step out of their comfortable boxes and design a service with the community in order for it to work here.’

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