'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."