One prominent finalist on the recent ITV talent show Britain’s Got Talent was the Missing People Choir, whose haunting voices and accompanying images helped raise consciousness about those who disappear. After the grand final, it was widely reported that a missing young boy had returned to his family after seeing his image on screen.
Now that the celebratory headlines have passed, hopefully that story has a happy ending. In reality, however, a return is often difficult.
Between 250,000 and 300,000 people go missing in England and Wales every year, while in Scotland it’s 39,000. You may be surprised to learn that around 99% come home, including 97% of adults within a week of disappearing. Indeed, only 1%-2% of cases usually remain outstanding for more than a year.
Sadly, around a third disappear again, and 80% also report mental health problems. One key reason is that missing people, particularly adults, receive little or no support when they come home. A first return is a missed opportunity to prevent a future disappearance.
I was the principal investigator for a unique project conducting in-depth interviews with 45 returned missing adults and 25 family members in Scotland and England. It revealed fascinating insights, including what happens after missing people return. As the two following examples show, a return can involve conflict and intense emotion:
I was numb when I came home, I didn’t feel guilty … it was more, ‘shit, I haven’t done what I wanted to do, failed again’ … so I hadn’t achieved anything by my little run away.
When you come back you have a load of things you may not want to face. That pressure is not what someone who disappears wants to have … I think you need an ear when you get back.
Women in particular talked about stepping back into situations of overwhelming responsibility, potential domestic violence or family conflict.
Going missing didn’t solve anything … I just came back to a massive load of chaos, angry chaos.
Such difficulties clearly risk another incident. People reported to us that no one seemed to understand what they had done, wanted to listen to the right detail, or ask the right questions in the right time and place. In Angela’s case, her return was marked by silence:
My friends don’t really talk about it, they know about it, but haven’t really spoken about it. [My mum] knows about it. She doesn’t talk about it because these kind of things are really frowned upon.
How loved ones respond
Angela saw her experience as being explained by a particular cultural response to mental health issues in her part of Scotland. But in general, families and friends often don’t know what to say. We tend to have a language and emotional repertoire around disappearance, but are silent, uncertain or angry and disbelieving about the return.
Families experiencing repeat missing events spoke of “treading on eggshells”, hardly daring to ask what really happened. Some tried to manage their anger, like Sam, whose brother disappears regularly:
You can be quite pissed off that they dared do it in the first place and I think it’s possibly trying to realise that it’s not actually about you.
Loved ones can find it hard to ask where the person went. Adrian, whose daughter has been missing more than ten times, said:
We’ve just got into a habit where we’ve stopped asking, because she’s never coughed up any information. There’s that constant barrier in that area.
Family members constantly fear another absence and what might cause it. They may frequently over or underprotect the person, either constantly checking on them or never questioning where they are going.
Families are not well supported in their local communities. While a search for a missing person can prompt intense neighbourly feeling and direct action, people often lose interest or distance themselves when the person comes back. Gail said her community was “totally unsupportive” after her daughter returned, for example.
A missing person can even be a surprising source of family shame and even stigma. This contributes to the common silence around the experience. As Sally said:
I think the people who know my mum and my sister know not to mention it. It has become an unmentionable thing really.
At present, returning adults are usually only interviewed by the police to check they are safe and well. In terms of referrals for further support, often the most they can expect is the phone number of the Missing People charity. (Note that returning children at least have to receive an interview from a trained independent professional to ascertain why they went missing and try and avoid a repeat.)
The situation for adults is currently changing. Three “national conversations” in England, Wales and Scotland took place last year, organised by the University of Glasgow, with contributions from the police, relevant charities and academics like myself.
They called for returned missing people to be given more attention, and for more social workers and mental health professionals to offer support. Such professionals are best placed to handle a return as a process rather than a singular event. Meanwhile, the Missing People charity co-authored a briefing paper that set out why returns are not simply a policing issue and why return should involve other sectors and professionals.
In May, the Scottish government then launched the Missing Persons Framework, with new guidance encouraging these kinds of professionals to conduct return discussions with the returned person. This applies to all missing people and has put Scotland at the forefront of prevention work.
The question now is whether this kind of guidance will be enough to change the statistics on missing incidents. If not, mandatory action may be required. It is time we recognised that coming home requires more than a glowing “media moment”. We need to work in new ways to reduce the chances of missing people disappearing over and over again.