Responding to the Grenfell Tower fire

Dr Jessica Munafò writes.

The Grenfell disaster felt like an alarm going off inside of me. Maybe it was the three terror attacks having happened within a month. Maybe it was the emotional temperature stirred up by the election and Brexit and austerity. Maybe it was just the sheer horror of such a huge, brutal and preventable tragedy.

Individuals and organisations have started to develop organised responses, based partly on lessons learned from previous disasters, on the best available evidence-based practice guidelines, and on information coming in from the ground as to what might be needed for this particular situation. Local emergency and NHS services, as well as voluntary groups have attended to urgent needs and begun to structure care pathways for providing support in the longer term. Professional bodies have also started developing their own responses. The UK Psychological Trauma Society have modified their conference programme to include a workshop on ‘Psychosocial Disaster Management Response’. Changing Faces have posted a statement on their website describing their position on the Grenfell tragedy. Trauma Aid UK are offering free CPD to practitioners who can commit to providing pro bono EMDR therapy. Of course, there are always people who fall through the gaps – people who feel unable to access or afford care for many different reasons. Doctors of the World have started sending out mobile teams in order to care for hard-to-reach groups such as these.

Like many others, I also wanted to pour the energy I had into a helpful and coordinated response. So after contacting the BPS, I began to collect names of people who were willing to offer their services for free – with a view to support other services that were operating at full capacity. Immediately I ran into the tensions between rushing in and standing back, between being naively reactive and being thoughtfully proactive, between feeling hopeful and hopeless. There are understandable and important concerns regarding the unintended consequences of some of our helping behaviours in these rare and horrific circumstances. The risk of re-traumatisation of the survivors, vicarious traumatisation and burnout of unsupported aid workers, of focusing solely on trauma work when there will be many other issues arising such as bereavement, burns, injuries, appearance concerns, and of course social justice. ‘Do No Harm’ workshops and volunteer support events are being run to minimise the risk of these problems occurring, but may not be enough.

The psychological wounds arising from this event will unfold over the long term and will stretch our already reduced statutory services. I have been heartened by the positive response of many psychologists willing to help. I hope to find a way of putting this directory to good use in order to contribute to the expertise and compassion that already exists within our service structures. As psychologists, we have many skills in direct and indirect clinical care as well as academic research, from within NHS, university, third sector and independent practice settings. Suggestions are welcome!

Jessica Munafò
Honorary Clinical Psychologist
Traumatic Stress Service, Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust

See also Rowena Hill's piece.

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