The first piece of major research into why people go missing has been carried out by Dundee and Glasgow universities. Jack McKeown finds out what makes people choose to disappear.
Scottish people are 50% more likely to go missing than people in the rest of the UK. Over 2010/11, 7.5 people per 1,000 head of population went missing in Scotland, compared to only 5.1 per 1,000 across the rest of the UK.
Even in the London area, the incidence is only 6.3 per 1,000.
Yet the paucity of research carried out into missing people is such that the report’s own authors don’t know why Scots are more likely to go missing.
“It may be something to do with poverty rates, or levels of drug and alcohol addiction,” said Professor Nick Fyfe. “It may be the statistics for that year.
“The truth is not much research has been carried out in this area. A lot more needs to be done.”
Professor Fyfe, a lecturer in Geography at Dundee University who focuses on crime, policing and criminal justice, is one of the authors of a ground-breaking new study into missing persons.
The Geographies of Missing People project is the first study to perform in-depth interviews with people who have been reported as missing and make recommendations on how the support they receive after they return can be improved.
The project is a partnership between the Universities of Glasgow and Dundee, the Scottish Institute for Policing Research, London Metropolitan Police, Police Scotland and is supported with expert advice from the charity Missing People.
Researchers held lengthy conversations with 45 people aged between 18 and 79 who were reported missing between 2009 and 2011.
The people all came from the Grampian region and the London Metropolitan area.
Although missing children is another area of grave concern researchers focused on missing adults because it is already difficult carrying out research into people who have been reported missing and there are additional ethical issues around working with children.
While people choose to disappear for a variety of reasons, Professor Fyfe said there were a number of common threads.
“Drink and drug abuse were common, as was childhood trauma,” he said. “Sometimes the breakdown of a relationship or financial concerns was a factor.”
One factor was by far the biggest common thread in the study: more than three quarters of those interviewed said they had some kind of mental illness.
Forty-two per cent said they had suicidal thoughts and a third actually attempted suicide while they were missing. Twice as many women as men attempted suicide.
They were much more likely to come to harm, Professor Fyfe explained: “Some of them slept rough, while others stayed with strangers or people they barely knew.
“All of them were at greater risk of harm than the general population. And because most missing persons cases are unplanned, people often leave with just the clothes on their back. They are not prepared for the elements.”
All of the interviewees in the study were “success stories” who had returned home. Police conducted a standard safe and well check and asked if they wanted to take part in the academic research.
Some people who go missing do so out of choice and don’t necessarily want to be found. When police track them down they say they are quite happy and don’t want their family to be informed.
“There are people who just want to take some time out,” Professor Fyfe explained. “They might have been having financial worries, have had a relationship break down, or just want some time away from things for reasons of their own.
“These people don’t see themselves as ‘missing’ they know exactly where they are. Often they don’t even go very far from home they like to remain somewhere familiar.”
The study found an almost even 51% – 49% split between the number of men and women who go missing. More than 90% of its subjects were aged between 22 and 59.
However, there is a concern that our aging population is leading to increasing numbers of “grey ghosts” people going missing because of dementia-related conditions.
“This is something that is becoming a bigger issue as more and more people live into old age,” Professor Fyfe continued.
“Those in our study who were older tended to be suffering from Alzheimer’s or a similar condition.
“They become confused, wander off and get lost.”
Professor Fyfe said more can be done to stop people going missing in the first place.
“The key is ‘talk not walk,’” he said. “Missing people is such a taboo subject. It isn’t talked about much and the only time you see a missing person making the news is when they’re a high-profile case. Yet someone goes missing in Britain every two minutes.
“GPs and other health professionals who come into contact with people at risk need to be more aware of the signs, recognise when people are in danger of becoming missing, and engage with them.”
Once people go missing, the most important thing is to act fast.
“Speed is of the essence. It is challenging for police but they have to move quickly in these situations.
“We came across a case during our study where someone had committed suicide within two hours of going missing.”
When missing people return home, handling them sensitively is one of the keys to preventing them from fleeing again.
“We think that police should wait a week or two before conducting their safe and well test,” Professor Fyfe said.
“Returning home is traumatic and the presence of police straight away only makes it more stressful.
“There is also a strong case that charities or volunteer organisations may be best placed to conduct these interviews.”
* If you are in a crisis, unsure what to do next or would like to pass a message to someone contact Missing People through www.missingpeople.org.uk call Freefone 116 000, text 116 000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org