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Grenfell Tower

The Big Problem with the Mental Health Response for Grenfell Survivors

The biggest mental health response of its kind in Europe means little when two-thirds of survivors are still living in temporary accommodation.

by Hannah Ewens
18 May 2018, 2:07pm

Photo via Justice4Grenfell

Adel Chowdhury helps to prepare the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire for their new homes. As one of the British Muslims involved in the Grenfell Muslim Response Unit, the 26-year-old discusses the transition with them at length. They're to expect something different. It's not a return to what they'd known, but a chance at something new. It's been a lengthy process of practical and emotional support, as the former Grenfell residents' days camped in hotel rooms or student halls have strung out to weeks and then months.

Around six months after the fire, a rehoming for J* and her toddler and young child was arranged. On the move day, J went with her key worker and housing officer to the flat in Fulham. The moment they opened the door, they all realised another family was already living there. There had been a mix-up: the house had been taken by someone else – other Grenfell survivors, or those on the waiting list for social housing. She had to go back to the hotel she'd been living in with her children.

"Her dreams were thrown out the window and it’s back to square one," Adel told VICE soon afterwards. "People can't move on until their basic needs are met. Giving everyone counselling without those needs met is just putting a plaster on it."

The annual #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek has unfortunately become a time to review the broken commitments made around mental health, in this case by Theresa May and the Conservative government. Of all the recent failed promises – mental health care not being made a priority (mental health trusts have less money to spend on patients now than they did five years ago), not improving child mental health (only 6 percent of the budget is spent on young people, a recent review of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services found it consistently lacking) – perhaps one of the most unpalatable is the failure to rehouse Grenfell survivors, and the potential mental health ramifications this could have.

May initially said she hoped to rehouse everyone within three weeks of the fire. The communities secretary, Sajid Javid, later told MPs the local council was looking at a Christmas deadline. The leader of the local council then said she was "absolutely" hoping to house everyone within a year.

The one-year anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire is less than a month away, and only one-third of the survivors have been re-homed. In a catch-up phone call yesterday, Adel said of the survivors who are still displaced, "In nearly a year, their situation hasn't improved that much. They're still in temporary accommodation and unclear on immigration and many other things."

Experts estimated that 11,000 people could be experiencing PTSD or mental health issues because of the fire, and the response itself was undeniably wide-reaching, called the biggest mental health response to a disaster of its kind in Europe. It wasn't without its issues – some affected needed faith-based healing rather than a mainstream approach, and language was a significant problem. VICE heard stories of cases in which individuals were waiting seven months for counselling in Farsi.

Four months after the fire, PTSD cases started to become more prominent, according to Jim O’Donnell, Deputy Borough Director of Kensington and Chelsea at CNWL NHS Foundation Trust. "Imagine you're a family living in a hotel," he said, over the phone. "That is not their normal life – it's an added pressure. Symptoms of PTSD [are complicated] by grappling with multiple life complexities, like getting your children to school when you’re in a hotel in the south of the borough. The logistics of life are an added challenge."

The winter came – with it, the six-month anniversary mark – and the area became a "ghost town". Brown and twisted trees blended in with the burnt exterior of the tower. Survivors in their hotels reported feeling bitter loneliness. As the cold crept in, Jim had a worried conversation with a prominent community figure about the darkness and long evenings. The fear was that people would shut themselves away and become suicidal. Suicide numbers bounced around in the press – 24 rumoured attempts by survivors or witnesses was reported at Christmas, while Jim heard from locals that the figure was closer to 60. His team tried to work out whether that was true, looking for the sources of rumours, but it was near impossible to confirm.

The set-up for most survivors is this: families of five or six living in a couple of hotel rooms. No space for relaxation, privacy or play. There is no nipping out of bed in the middle of the night to make a piece of toast when you’re hungry. It's nights of lying on sheets that aren’t yours, eating Pot Noodles or sharing portions from takeaway cartons.

"Mothers want to cook for their family and wash their clothes," said Adel. "You have a predominantly Moroccan community in the Grenfell area, and the culture still present in this community is focused around food. That's what brings nuclear families together, and it's the same with many cultures. Now, with it being Ramadan, this is more important with regards to the evening iftar, where families break their fast together."

It's well documented that poor diet affects your mental health, as do poor housing conditions and lack of stable housing. The majority of us will never be able to imagine the anxiety of survivors' current lifestyles; the fact remains that uncertainty over your future is worse for your well-being than certainty of a bad future. What, can anyone say, is certain for the survivors?

We're nearing the beginning of summer again. A few days ago, Labour MP David Lammy, who lost two friends in the fire, told the House of Commons that 72 households from Grenfell live in hotel rooms, while 64 remain in temporary accommodation. Meanwhile, London housing associations are still auctioning properties in the borough and those surrounding it on the open market to wealthy private landlords and developers – a despicably "London" move.

Specialist mental health provisions for those in the area will continue. "We will go on as long as it's needed," said Jim. "It's quite clear from the response to the fire this is going to take years." Children, for example, could experience flashbacks later on in life, or have PTSD develop over a longer period. As other landmarks already have for survivors, the one-year mark will come and go – and Adel is concerned about press and public pressure waning after the 14th of June. "While counselling is needed in the approach, it'll be almost fruitless until people’s basic needs are met, and that's around accommodation," he sighs. "That's as much the case today as it was a few months ago."

The Grenfell Muslim Response Unit is disbanding come July. Adel and his friends will move onto other projects, having seen most survivors to the end of their cases; many had goals as simple as getting a job or settling their immigration status. He is still in contact with J, and as far as he knows she and her children still live in a hotel.

If you would like to follow the work of the Grenfell Muslim Response Unit, you can find them on twitter @GrenfellMRU. Support the Justice4Grenfell movement here.

@hannahrosewens