Thursday, 19 July 2018

Mental Health and Missing: observations by Richard Rickford, Research Assistant

Many of you will have heard of the dilemma of the cave person entering a clearing in the jungle and suddenly a sabre tooth tiger jumping out. 

Who would want to be a tiger’s supper? There is a choice. Either combat the tiger or make a run for it (fight or flight). 




We still feel huge fear. But the threat is no longer a sabre tooth tiger. The threat could be some mental health problem in our lives. Other problems can mix with it making it even harder to cope. Perhaps we turn to substances like alcohol to self-medicate. Perhaps we are in debt with some aggressive characters losing their temper with us and demanding money.

Although the threat has changed since our cave person days the way we deal with it very often has not. After all we are still apes at heart. Fighting is not always an option. The only other is to disappear.

If the cave person is a fast runner perhaps they can leave the tiger behind. For the modern person who disappears their problems will probably stay with them. Running away does not address mental health issues, doesn’t make them any less addicted to substances or any less in debt. New problems, such as where to find a roof at night might well appear. Although not all missing people have mental ill health, up to 80% do.

People who go missing because of these fears are not to be judged. Firstly judging does no good at all and only serves to make the judge feel superior. Secondly unless someone has had a serious mental illness there is no way of understanding how dreadful mental ill health is, and how frightening. Sometimes vocabulary doesn’t help: we use the term depressed when we don’t feel like going to work on a Monday morning – but depression is also the name of a horrible illness. Something that kills. It requires therapeutic and sometimes medical treatment but this is not always available or there may be a very long wait during which much can happen.


I have previously completed research into how Community Mental Health Teams respond when someone they are looking after in the community goes missing. The research found some examples of really positive practice in supporting people who have been missing but also sadly found that missing people don’t always get the support they need.

More recently I have supported the All Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults’ inquiry into safeguarding missing adults who have mental health issues. The inquiry has gathered evidence in an attempt to understand the support available for adults who go missing whilst struggling with mental health issues, and importantly what can and should be improved.

In order for Missing People and other organisations to have effective policies about supporting vulnerable adults going missing and returning, research and discussion needs to take place about how the situation is at the moment. As many knowledgeable people as possible need to be asked what they think needs changing. This is why the inquiry is so important. It is like a king or queen needing to know what is going on in their kingdom before they decide about what laws to enact. Needless to say the king or queen will also need many advisors. No-one has all the answers. Very little research has been done so far on vulnerable missing people and their families – especially when it comes to adults.  This needs to be addressed and the responses from organisations who care need to be well defined and co-ordinated.

If people have mental ill health and are thinking about going missing, or are missing, then help should be available. For many people in this situation, the most useful help comes from someone who is not tied up in their family life or social networks.

Missing People is a national charity that offers anyone affected by missing a listening ear, help to stay safe and help to get the support they need. The charity can also help the person contact their families, should they want this, or give a message to their family on their behalf.

You can ring Missing People on 116 000, around the clock, and it’s free and confidential.  The charity is also there for the families of missing people just as much as for the missing people themselves.


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Someone is reported missing every 90 seconds in the UK. The Missing Blog aims to give a voice to all those affected by this issue.

Written by families and friends of missing people, supporters working to raise awareness of the cause, and volunteers and staff at the charity Missing People, we hope that this blog will offer a window into the issue of missing.

The charity Missing People is a lifeline when someone disappears. To find out more about Missing People and ways that you can support the charity visit www.missingpeople.org.uk.

Call or text the charity Missing People for free on 116 000, 24/7 if you or anyone you know is affected by a disappearance.