A popular junior firefighter who died by suicide had “a vivid interior life at odds with the world around him”, a coroner has said.
Jaden Francois-Esprit, a firefighter at Wembley fire station, died at his home in Brewhouse Lane, Wapping, east London, in late August 2020.
The cause of his death was recorded as suspension.
An inquest into his death at King’s Cross Coroner’s Court heard his family feared he was being bullied due to his race, citing concerns that he had been teased about Caribbean food in his packed lunches.
His mother Linda Francois said her son was being “unfavourably singled out because he’s an ethnic minority”.
She said Mr Francois-Esprit “hated” working at Wembley Fire Station, and that he had told her his “crew manager” was bullying him.
She added her son was concerned about not receiving learning support from LFB with his dyslexia, and that he felt “isolated, bored and unfulfilled” at work.
The 21-year-old, who was part of Green Watch at Wembley, made 16 transfer requests to four different stations in London between February and August 2020.
But he was told his request was unlikely to be granted until he had completed his training workbook – a process that would probably have taken him about eight months.
Lewis Gunn, Mr Francois-Esprit’s lead firefighter at Wembley, said: “I knew he didn’t feel like we were busy enough, I think that’s a realisation that every firefighter comes to after going through training.”
He said he was unaware the deceased had reported finding him hard to approach, adding: “I felt that the interactions we had were genuinely quite pleasant.”
Mr Gunn said he was also unaware that Mr Francois-Esprit struggled with dyslexia, but said he had noticed he had become more withdrawn in the months before he died.
He said he had had a word with him when Mr Francois-Esprit had snapped “What now?” after he asked him to help clean the station mess.
“I asked him if he was happy in the job and if he was happy at the station – he didn’t seem that happy,” Mr Gunn said.
A friend who trained with the young firefighter but was posted to a different station said Mr Francois-Esprit had asked him about his training and the procedures where he worked.
Gabriel Ivarsson told King’s Cross Coroner’s Court in a statement: “He felt he was being teased about his food and about his culture and background.”
Station officer Daniel Green, a senior firefighter at Wembley, expressed his bewilderment that Mr Francois-Esprit believed he was being singled out because of his background and food.
“There are 90 firefighters on the station, about half of whom bring in their own food,” he said.
He said that firefighters were occasionally ribbed about their dinner, but that Mr Francois-Esprit’s rice and peas and other Caribbean dishes would not have been out of the ordinary.
He cited firefighters who weighed their carbohydrates as part of their fitness regime as examples of those who were sometimes teased.
Mr Green added that he was confused by the deceased’s claims to his family that he was the only person of colour on his watch.
“Of the 20 staff on his watch, a quarter were people of colour,” he said.
“To hear it reported that he was the only person of colour on the station – I can’t understand why he would have thought that it was right to tell his family that.”
He added: “It simply wasn’t true. I don’t know why he would have said that.”
Sean Nunkoosing, a colleague of Mr Francois-Esprit, also knew he was frustrated in the job, but said he had never confided in him about being bullied.
“He never said he was unhappy at work – he used the word ‘bored’. I could infer from our conversation that he wasn’t as happy as he might have been in another job,” he said.
Recording a verdict of suicide, Coroner Mary Hassell said: “What really concerns me here is the deteriorating mental health of a young man which went undetected by those around him.
“Jaden clearly had a really vivid interior life which was somewhat at odds with what was going on around him.”
She continued: “I was struck by very simple matters such as describing being the only person of colour at the station when in fact when he first joined there were five fire fighters of colour and some of those became close friends of his.
“He obviously felt terribly isolated and yet I have heard lots of evidence that he was really well liked, that he did have friends, he did have people who cared about him, as well as his family who clearly cared about him and wanted to be involved in his life as much as they possibly could.”
“There seems to have been a mismatch between how he felt and how he was perceived by others.”
Ms Hassell said her prevention of future deaths report would look at how the London Fire Brigade could “broaden the scope” of its already “sophisticated” mental health services to ensure people like Mr Francois-Esprit know how to get help.
Commissioner of London Fire Brigade, Andy Roe, said: “This is a tragic incident and it saddens me to hear that instead of enjoying a new career as a firefighter, Jaden faced challenges and felt unhappy.”
He said that an internal investigation had been carried out in the wake of Mr Francois-Esprit’s death and shared with the coroner.
He added: “We take any incidences of alleged bullying seriously and have strict policies in place, which all staff are expected to adhere to.”