Dr James Partridge writes…
The appalling epidemic of acid attacks in Britain continues unabated with more attacks in East London and Essex in recent weeks. The Evening Standard, 24.7.17 reports: A total of 455 acid attacks were reported to Scotland Yard last year, a rise of 74 per cent, with 20 people convicted of offences but more than a third of perpetrators never caught. Between January and April this year alone there were 114 attacks.
The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, has announced a tough review of sentencing policy – I hope this will be speedy – with possible life sentences for those who perpetrate this crime. And there needs to be other action too to make sulphuric acid much more difficult to get hold of.
Those attacked need all our help. The Basildon, Canvey and Southend Echo, 25.5.17, for example, reports: Lee Elliott, 17, suffered horrific burns to his face and could lose his vision, while Tyrone Terry, also 17, has serious burns to his tongue and mouth. The victims, all aged between 16 and 18, include Billy Milne and Connor Leeman, who suffered burns to their faces, while Kane Richards received burns to his hands.
The report on that attack also makes plain just how devastating it was for one of the families concerned – we must make sure families get the right support and help too.
The burns that acid causes are usually deep and severe to faces and bodies and patients will need multiple skin graft operations to reconstruct their eyelids, noses and ears. Professor Dziewulski of the Broomfield Hospital in Colchester, a leading burns surgeon, is quoted in the Evening Standard: “Over the last 10 or 15 years there were a handful of cases at the unit. But last year saw 20. So far this year we have had 20 and 10 have required surgery. The vast majority are under 30. There is a particular proportion which are teenagers and most are male but we have had quite a few female victims.”
Lead burn consultants acknowledge that even after receiving all the sophisticated treatments of modern surgery (and learning from their colleagues in other countries too), patients are likely to have scars for life. This is why Changing Faces exists – to help people live confident lives with an unusual appearance and to ensure our society is accepting and inclusive with no shred of discrimination or prejudice.
Changing Faces is very confident that the burn care team at Broomfield and other burn units will provide excellent acute care and will attend to the survivors’ immediate psychological concerns – and be ever vigilant for signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We also worked with the Broomfield and other burn centre team a few years ago to develop a highly-rated training course for the whole team about the psychological and social effects of the change in appearance that burns cause.
We know – and burn care teams know too – from research and experience, that the emotional and social impact of the disfigurements caused by burns can often really kick in after discharge from the acute phase. When people are back at home, alone or trying to return to work, that’s when the problems can be felt most: they can feel low and very self-conscious about their scars. Everywhere they go, they feel other people staring or are asked intrusive questions.
Our recent Disfigurement in the UK report indicated that just how painful it can be to be ‘out and about’ with a disfigurement – staring, comments and unpleasantness can seriously deflate a person’s self-confidence. The public’s unconscious bias to meeting people who look different is persistently negative despite our efforts over the last eight years.
What is crucial is that those injured in acid attacks – and their families – are well-prepared for this and know how and from whom to seek help. We encourage burn care teams to enable patients to keep in contact with the centre, to know about what Changing Faces can offer and how to connect, and about other relevant support groups like Dan’s Fund for Burns or Katie Piper Foundation.
And we encourage the clinical team to use our 321 GO programme before discharge. Each patient should have the chance to work out before discharge (GO) 3 things to do if someone stares at them, 2 things to say if someone asks what happened, 1 thing to think if someone appears to turn away. There are no right ways but aggression and avoidance are not favoured. The desired end-result is that the patient (and family) feels more in control when going into public places – and gets a positive reaction (or at least not a negative one).
Longer term, acid survivors need to have access during their treatment to clinical care that reflects the principles of our FACES package as offered by our Changing Faces Practitioners:
F: they are enabled to Find out about their scars and all possible treatments
A: they can develop a positive and resilient Attitude about their future
C: they are helped to Cope with their feelings of anxiety, anger, loss etc
E: they can share and Exchange experiences with others who have ‘been there’
S: they can learn the Social Skills needed to manage other people’s reactions.
They may find our self-help guides useful.
Changing Faces is also determined that the British society into which those attacked with acid return does not treat them badly – with intrusive press stories, nasty social media abuse or difficulties at work. Our recent Disfigurement in the UK report tells us all that there is much to do to prevent this happening – and our campaigning for face equality will seek to challenge abuses or negative portrayals whenever we see them.
The good news is that in India where acid attacks have also been on the increase, some of the survivors are now appearing as fashion models. Read this article on the BBC website and in this piece the Guardian.
I am confident that British society can be just as inclusive in the years to come.
Dr James Partridge is the Founder and Chief Executive at Changing Faces. Viewpoint represents the views of its authors only and not necessarily the policies or views of Changing Faces, its staff or trustees.