'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."

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
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

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + uncapped commission, Benefits, OTE £100k: SThree: ...

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

    £27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Are you a recent graduate loo...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine