Tracing the lives of missing persons

Lone person on beach25 September 2012

Approximately 327,000 people go missing every year - 110,000 of them adults. Up until now there has been no research into why adults choose to go missing, how they disappear, where they go, and why they do, or do not, come back. That is about to change as a new ESRC-funded project entitled Geographies of Missing People will chronicle the stories of those who have chosen to disappear.

Researchers from Glasgow and Dundee University worked with the Metropolitan and Grampian police service to interview 45 people who have at some point in their life chosen to go missing. They spoke at length to police, police-based researchers, forensic scientists, academics and representatives of Missing People, an independent UK charity. The findings will be used to train police, inform government policy and design services to support those who disappear and their families.

The stories emerging from the project may challenge society's perception of missing people. They reveal, for example, that missing people often do not see themselves as missing. They are more likely to view themselves as taking time out and are often surprised by the label.

"Often we have this idea in our head of a missing person spending a long time planning their escape, before disappearing and reinventing their identity somewhere else," says the lead researcher of the project, Dr Hester Parr from Glasgow University.

"Actually the reality of it is the opposite of that; 70-80 per cent of missing people return within one week. Although this may seem like a very short time period, for the people involved it is a very traumatic and profound experience."

It is estimated that 80 per cent of people reported as missing suffer from mental health problems, and the crisis can often come about as a result of accumulated stresses such as financial worries or relationship breakdowns. Whatever the cause, most missing persons incidents are unplanned and short-term, ranging from less than 24 hours to just a few months.

However, for those few that do choose to never come back there exists a legal right to remain missing. Police will often advise a person to let their family know they are safe, but it is ultimately up to the missing person as to whether or not they want to do this. Dr Parr hopes that the outcomes of this research will help to generate a debate in the UK about how best to put into practice our right to remain missing.

The researchers are currently halfway through their study and are about to start talking to affected families in order to hear their stories. They have also launched a website this week to capture the written experiences of further missing people.

"This is a nationwide call for the missing to tell their stories," says Dr Parr.