'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."

Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
A polar bear’s diet is rich in seal blubber and half of its own body weight is composed of fat
i100
News
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
arts
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

    Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

    Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

    £25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

    Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

    £25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

    Day In a Page

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape