Tens of thousands missing people are left “alone and isolated” once they found they are found due to a chronic lack of support.
Up to a third of these people go missing again, “often with tragic consequences”, a parliamentary inquiry into the issue has found.
Labour MP Ann Coffey, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children, said: “Going missing is a red flag moment.
“It is a warning sign of crisis in someone’s life that should trigger support. Vulnerable people should not just be found and forgotten.”
The inquiry, which released its findings on Thursday, heard how more than 126,000 missing person reports were recorded in 2015/16 – 600 of which resulted in a missing adult being found dead, with the most common cause being suicide. Around 80% have mental health issues.
Evidence shown to MPs suggested that around a third of cases of missing people reported to police involve suicide or self-harm.
“It is literally life or death,” Coffey added.
But despite the high stakes, the police have been left “firefighting the problem almost single-handed”, MPs said.
According to the inquiry, police interviews to assess the need for ongoing medical assistance for returned missing people are not being carried out anywhere in England, Wales or Northern Ireland – despite official guidance.
A woman named Esther, who went missing in 2016, explained to MPs the importance of return interviews.
“I spoke to the police once – they asked for my name, address, date of birth and any crimes that I wanted to report,” she said. “That was it.”
Esther said police spoke to her in A&E at St Thomas’ Hospital “whilst [I was] banging my head against a wall”.
“I was safe yes, but not well,” she continued. “That is why we need to make it a statutory requirement to have a return interview. If I go missing again, the police aren’t going to have anything to go on.”
MPs have now called for an overhaul of the response to missing adults with mental health problems on their return, saying that “Groundhog Day” situations where people repeatedly go missing must be stopped.
As well as return interview for all missing people, there should be much more involvement from the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England, the inquiry concluded.
“The whole response to adults who go missing needs improving – we need better risk assessment, better training of call handlers and frontline officers to identify mental health issues, and better initial and long-term support,” Coffey added.