Hundreds of lives are being put at risk each year because adults with mental health problems are ‘found and forgotten’ after going missing.
Many people have felt that sense of wanting to run away from it all at moments of crisis. Most stay put.
But increasing numbers of people are finding it difficult to cope and are going missing – and up to 80% of them are struggling with mental health problems.
I believe that going missing should be a ‘red flag moment’ which ought to trigger help.
But instead tens of thousands of adults are left alone and isolated with no support on their return home. Up to one third go missing again often with tragic consequences.
Opportunities for intervention and prevention of further harm are frequently being missed, according to evidence heard by our APPG ‘Inquiry into safeguarding missing adults who have mental health issues’, published today.
There are about 126,000 incidents of adults going missing annually. Up to 600 missing people a year are found dead: the most commonly known cause being suicide.
Police responses to the inquiry revealed that on average up to a third of missing incidents were recorded as involving suicide or self-harm, with one force recording 42%.
At the moment the police are firefighting the problem of missing people almost single handed.
But this is not predominantly a police problem, it is a health problem.
That is why the central recommendation of our inquiry was that mental health services and the Department of Health & Social Care must step up and take on a greater role, given the high levels of missing people suffering from depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses.
The police can find missing people and check they are alive, but it is up to the health and social care services to help identify risk and to support people on their return and put measures in place to prevent them going missing again.
We feel mental health professionals should be involved at all stages of a missing person investigation, and the Department of Health should record and monitor the number of people going missing from care settings and hospitals - which is too high.
On average about 15% of missing reports relate to hospitals – with one area reporting 29%. Sometimes the answers are simple. The inquiry heard that one hospital trust, where a patient was detained under the Mental Health Act, took his own life after going missing, was reprimanded by the Coroner for the high numbers going missing from one ward. Investigations revealed that patients had access to a button to release the door so they could let themselves in and out at will.
Many missing people told us that returning was far more difficult than going missing, because their problems have not gone away and they are desperate for help.
When a missing adult is found it is important that they are supported and everything possible is done to understand why they went missing and to help prevent them doing so again, the inquiry said.
One missing woman told the inquiry that support on return was “woefully inadequate”. She was seen by a police officer who merely asked her name, address, age and if she wanted to report any crimes.
She was not questioned about why she went missing or offered any specialist support, despite being found in A&E and physically banging her head against a wall while being interviewed. The police simply agreed that she could leave when she said she would go to a friend’s house.
Latest police guidance in 2017 introduced ‘prevention interviews’ to be conducted by the police as soon as a person is found to check that he or she has not experienced harm and to identify ongoing risks. But it was not clear from evidence presented to the inquiry how many police forces are conducting these or how effective they are.
In addition to prevention interviews, police guidance recommends that a more in-depth ‘return interview’ should be carried out by an independent agency to assess the need for ongoing medical assistance.
But shockingly, despite this clear guidance, the inquiry established that return interviews are not being offered to vulnerable missing adults in any part of England, Wales or Northern Ireland.
By contrast, a child who goes missing is automatically offered a return interview and support on return but there is no such statutory responsibility for adults.
We have recommended that independent return interviews and other specialist support should be offered to vulnerable missing adults and the College of Policing and the National Police Chiefs’ Council Lead for Missing Persons should carry out a review of the use and effectiveness of initial prevention interviews.
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.
There is no doubt in my mind that a more systematic multi-agency approach with a high input from health services could prevent deaths and reduce the risk of people repeatedly going missing.
Ann Coffey is the Labour MP for Stockport and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org