Grenfell Tower: How Government Should Respond, How Therapists Can Help
welldoing.org therapists who would like to offer free therapy to people affected by the Grenfell Tower fire should contact us at [email protected] Any such bookings that are made through welldoing.org will not be subject to the usual booking fee.
Below is a response to the event from longstanding member Sue Cowan-Jenssen:
Reading what the BBC correspondent Matthew Price wrote about the ‘outrageous’ lack of help for the Grenfell Tower victims some four days after the blaze was truly shocking. His account was echoed repeatedly throughout the media both mainstream and social. What was being referred to was not the lack of help from the local community, which was truly amazing, nor the response of the emergency services but the almost total failure of coordinated support from government both local and central.
In therapy, we work with the concept ‘containment’ which is important in helping clients feel supported and safe enough to tolerate what might feel intolerable. For example, keeping regular therapy times can be very important in helping a fragile client feel something holds firm even in chaos. So, from this perspective, it isn’t hard to understand how essential it is to provide a central functioning response in a crisis that can offer proper support, shelter, food and regular information. It is this that can offer some limited but crucial sense of containment.
Atle Dyregrov, a Norwegian psychologist who is an international expert in how to work with serious critical incidents emphasizes the crucial containing function of organizing immediate practical help and containment. Part of this is offering accurate, frequent information and updates about what is known. Even when there is no new additional information, people need to be kept regularly informed, even hourly, about everything that is being done. It is this sense of being cared for and supported that can help prevent or reduce the severity of post traumatic stress reactions. People will be suffering the traumatic shock of their experiences, anything that can help them feel supported, understood and soothed can lessen the impact of subsequent post-traumatic stress reactions. Feeling uncared for and unsupported adds to the risk of Post Traumatic Stress Reaction (PTSD). It is completely unacceptable that it is left to individual, desperate survivors or their family and friends to go to different hospitals trying to find information on who is alive or dead. It is unacceptable for homeless people not to know where they will be living in the short term.
A central location must be properly set up where people are able to meet and receive this help. The local community organized at the Westway Sports Centre and it was clearly hugely helpful but it was not adequately staffed by informed, trained people from the local council. A lot of help, containment and support needs to take place before you can offer effective trauma counselling. This is also why it it matters that significant people such as the Queen visit and show support. It is interesting that Theresa May herself lost her father in a car crash and then her mother a few months later when she was only 25 years old. Princes William and Harry have been able to use the experience of their mother’s death to reach out and communicate to people who have suffered loss and depression. It is a lesson that Theresa May could learn.
The residents of Grenfell Tower live in a privileged part of London. It is not a war zone. They were going about their normal life or were asleep in bed. It is impossible to imagine the terrifying impact of having to escape a burning building without warning, the sudden total loss of your home and your belongings. Add to this, the additional agony of seeing people burn and die, jumping from buildings in terror and desperation, losing loved ones and finally for some, the agony of not knowing if they are even alive or dead.
Everything that keeps most of us sane, is ripped away. Traumatised doesn’t even begin to adequately describe what some of the tenants are going through. When offered chaotic, disorganized responses and poor information, it is no surprise the residents of Grenfell Tower took to the streets in despair, frustration and rage about the inadequate, pitiful help they were receiving from the authorities. It is not a surprise that this failure is erupting into a serious political crisis. Surely one of the central purpose of politicians in government, central and local is to look after the needs of the population during a disaster and show compassion. When this function of government fails, the government has failed.