'I wanted to burn this disgust out of me'

Evidence of links between fatal fires and mental illness is prompting a new strategy

On a cold morning a month ago, Kofi Buckman stood outside the home in east London where his estranged children lived and, doused in petrol, struck a cigarette lighter to turn himself into a fireball. He died on the spot despite frantic attempts by neighbours and police to beat out the blaze.

Mr Buckman, 34, depressed after the breakdown of his 17-year relationship with Lynette Walmsley, 31, is one of an increasing number of people killing or harming themselves by using fire.

Plastic surgeons, nurses and mental health professionals treated 219 patients for self-inflicted burns in England in the year 2008-09 – a 60 per cent increase in 10 years, according to official NHS figures. This number does not include people treated by their GP, in A&E or in outpatients, or the vast majority of people who self-harm and do not seek any medical help.

Research by the IoS has found as many as one in 10 patients in burns units have deliberately injured themselves using naked flames, burning objects or corrosive substances.

While less than 2 per cent of suicides are currently recorded as being caused by burning, experts believe a higher proportion of fire deaths – as well as deaths by drowning and single vehicle car crashes – may be suicides rather than accidents.

Jane Bunclark, from the national self-harm unit at the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, said: "The actual numbers will be very much higher than those admitted to hospital because burning is a fairly popular method of self-harm. This ranges from cigarette burns to caustic burns to people holding naked flames against their skin. Most people use more than one method of self-harm and I'd say 40 per cent of patients we work with burn themselves as well.

"It is often associated with people trying to cleanse themselves, to get rid of feelings about being dirty which are linked with past abuse. It is also much more common among south Asian women because of the cultural association between funeral pyres and cleansing."

UK fire chiefs are so concerned that they will hold a conference next month to discuss ways to halt the disquieting trend after it emerged that nearly 40 per cent of people who died in household fires over a five-year period suffered from mental health problems. The new figures have convinced the Chief Fire Officers Association to develop a groundbreaking national mental health strategy involving working much more closely with mental health professionals to identify people at risk of hurting or killing themselves with fire.

Dave Smithson, a mental health liaison officer and fire station manager, said: "A disproportionate number of people with mental health problems are dying in fires. This has focused our minds and we are determined to find out why so that we can try to prevent these deaths."

"We have also identified links between fatal fires and people with learning disabilities and dementia, but we need more research to understand why."

Scientists from the University of Oxford Centre for Suicide Research and Bristol University are trying to establish what proportion of suicides are being wrongly reported as accidental by coroners at inquests.

Jorge Leon-Villapalos, a plastic surgeon from the Chelsea and Westminster burns unit, said: "People who have intentionally burnt themselves are a constant source of admissions for us. It is a huge challenge to manage the physical and psychological needs of these patients, some of whom we see repeatedly, and some who go on to die. But we have also seen more assaults recently, including some high-profile cases where petrol bombs have been used to try to eliminate the whole family in an 'honour killing'."

A legacy of abuse: 'I was totally full of self-hate'

Paul, 57, from Hampshire, has experienced mental health problems since childhood after being physically abused by his father and sexually abused by a priest. He has tried to end his life five times.

"The priest worked for a suicide helpline that I telephoned when I was 14. He took me under his wing, and the sexual abuse started when I was 15. He would ply me with drugs, sleeping tablets and alcohol; I was a total mess. I have tried to kill myself a few times when I've been totally full of self-hate. In 2003 I felt so dirty I wanted to cleanse myself of him, burn this disgust out of me, and so I tried to set fire to myself. I went through a whole box of matches but they kept going out. Then my son came home and took me to hospital. I am doing much better now, with medication, psychotherapy and the support of my wife and children, but it has taken all these years."

News
Sir David Attenborough
people
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
News
Comic miserablist Larry David in 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'
peopleDirector of new documentary Misery Loves Comedy reveals how he got them to open up
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Life and Style
David Bowie by Duffy
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
News
advertisingVideo: The company that brought you the 'Bud' 'Weis' 'Er' frogs and 'Wasssssup' ads, has something up its sleeve for Sunday's big match
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Environment
Dame Vivienne Westwood speaking at a fracking protest outside Parliament on Monday (AP)
environment
Life and Style
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

    Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

    £120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

    Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

    £70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

    £24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea