NHS Trust steps up outreach work to help manage distress triggered by Grenfell fire

The Grenfell Tower fire is bringing stressful past life events flooding back to people, and those not directly affected by the tragedy should not feel ashamed to seek help.

Emma Kennedy, manager of the Central and North West London NHS trust (CNWL’s) Grenfell outreach team, said she suspected there was a “huge community” of people struggling in addition to survivors and bereaved.

Staff are trying not to be “exclusive or prescriptive” about who the term “affected” covers, she said, aware that the “associative sadness” around the fire is triggering difficult memories of prior bereavements, trauma and stress.

She said: “There’s something about the story of Grenfell that people can identify with in some shape or form, it could be a period of homelessness, something in relation to accessing support from authority, or an experience of trying to navigate a system. It’s difficult to define.

“People are saying ‘I wasn’t directly affected, I wasn’t in the tower, I didn’t lose somebody’, but their level of distress from it is really quite high. So we want to manage that distress.

“If you feel your functioning has changed from this event for whatever reason, even if it’s tapping into something you experienced before, we want to meet you and have a discussion.”

CNWL has received more than 2,000 referrals under its screen and treat programme for post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by Grenfell over the past year.

It is now stepping up outreach to approach people who may not previously have felt ready to come forward or consider treatment, including those leaving hotels and settling into more stable or permanent housing.

Ms Kennedy said she felt the trust had embarked on a “revolutionary” model of healthcare that was seeing an unprecedented level of engagement with the north Kensington community.

But a significant number were not considering help “because they think they’re taking something that somebody else would use, that there isn’t enough of it”, she said.

Watching footage of the burning tower on television could be triggering for some people, she said.

Ms Kennedy continued: “I would absolutely love to convey to people that being affected by something isn’t that you’ve been in the throes of it.

“Being affected is watching something on television and realising it upsets you beyond what you perceive to be proportional. There’s nothing shameful in that experience.

“What we know about trauma is even listening to traumatic stories can make you feel traumatised, watching things on TV can make you feel traumatised.

“The way we process that is primarily through a position of avoidance, what we do is we don’t look at the things that cause us distress.

“And if we were feeling a high level of distress by those things and we were to avoid it, and we had previous experiences of a traumatic event or a bereavement, something that most people have in their lives, it can compound those feelings of anxiety and depression.”


A retired grandmother who returned to the NHS to help heal the grieving Grenfell community said she hopes a positive legacy can emerge from the blaze for the next generation.

Fatima Elguenuni, who has worked in children’s mental health in north Kensington for years, said she did not want her eight grandchildren to grow up thinking the blaze happened because nobody cared about them.

Her son Bellal, his pregnant wife Rabia and their three children Naila, 12, Aymen, nine, and Ayeesha, four, managed to escape the 18th floor of the tower a year ago on June 14.

Her daughter-in-law was in a coma for weeks, as were two of her grandchildren who collapsed outside the tower.

Ms Elguenuni was at their hospital bedsides when she received a call from her former employer, the Central and North West London NHS trust, asking her to help them reach the traumatised community.

Speaking publicly for the first time, the 57-year-old said: “Early on I felt that we were incredibly lucky as a family, because my grandchildren, although they were very poorly, they did manage to escape, they did manage to survive.

“I felt like I could take a step back and of course deal with my own family’s difficulties and my own, or I could try and use whatever expertise I have to make this community feel well. And I knew I wouldn’t be able to stay at home.”

The mother-of-four decided she could not do nothing while her friends and neighbours grieved, and has been working for the past 10 months bridging the gap between the NHS, the local council and residents as a community consultant.

The Grenfell fire shone a “huge floodlight” on complex, pre-existing issues she said, calling the aftermath an opportunity to “repair some of the damage, to make right some of the wrongs, and to rebuild”.

She went on: “There’s an incredible amount of work to do, and I think the community is still severely traumatised. I think there’s still a lot of anger, however there is still potential and possibilities for really, really good things to come out of this.

“One of the things that drives me and inspires me to get up every morning is that I really do not want my grandchildren, who really did suffer… I do not want them growing up thinking that that tragedy happened because people didn’t care.

“I really do want them to have a very-much hopeful legacy of Grenfell, because it’s their future, this is their community, and my biggest passion is that we create a community that they can actually feel (is) a positive one, rather than think ‘Grenfell happened because people didn’t care about us’.”

During the past year, Mrs Elguenuni said she had seen the community move from a position of distrust of the NHS as a statutory organisation to a “very good” partnership where people were more willing to consider taking up treatment.

Accompanied visits back to the tower, she said, were key to establishing strong relationships, as was a meeting she arranged between the Trust and the survivors and bereaved group Grenfell United.

While she did not feel able to return with her son Bellal, she was “full of admiration” for colleagues who accompanied survivors and the bereaved.

She said: “What I was proud of was the fact that my colleagues took on that role and actually went up with survivors and the bereaved… and it built a really strong bond between the therapist that accompanied that particular survivor or that particular bereaved person, and shared a very intimate and difficult situation. And I feel they’ve earned a lot of trust and a lot of respect.”

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