Why people go missing

Anyone, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity or educational background, may become a missing person.

The reasons for going missing are many and varied and can include mental illness, miscommunication, misadventure, domestic violence, and being a victim of crime.

While there are inherent risks attached to any missing event, specific population groups are recognised as particularly vulnerable to harm while missing. Adults are more likely to be listed as long-term missing persons, however our youth are most likely to be reported missing at a rate of 6 times the national average. Of the 38,000 missing persons reports submitted to police each year 19,000 or 50% relate to those aged between the years 13 - 17. Other at risk gorups of going missing within our community include:

  • Children and young people
  • Those suffering a mental illness, or depression
  • The elderly and those living with dementia
  • Persons expressing suicidal thoughts
  • Those living with an intellectual or physical disability or without lifesaving medication.
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Youth

Young people go missing for lots of reasons including family conflict, wanting to become independent, being a victim of crime, forgetting to tell someone where they are going, mental health problems, drugs/alcohol abuse, other abuse and neglect. Only a very small percentage of missing persons cases in Australia are stranger abductions. Most young people and children who go missing disappear for short periods and are then located.

The most common reasons that youth go missing can broadly be classified into two groups voluntary and involuntary.

Involuntary reasons

Involuntary reasons for going missing (e.g. being a victim of crime or stranger abductions) are difficult to prevent. The best method of prevention is to make your child aware of their own safety. For parents with younger children we encourage you to take note of the following tips to help keep your children safe. We also suggest that you consider downloading the Australian Police Child ID App.

Safety Tips for Parents

  1. Make sure that your child knows his/her full name, your full name, your address, and your telephone number(s), including area code(s). Make sure your child knows how to use a telephone and how to call 000.
  2. Do not leave your young children home alone. If you must leave your older children at home by themselves, tell them not to answer the door. If they answer the telephone, they should not mention that they are alone but should say that you are unavailable and will call back.
  3. Tell your children to move away from cars that pull up beside them if they do not know the driver, even if the driver claims to know you. If your child is being followed, they should know to run home or go to a safe house or the nearest public place.
  4. Teach your children not to play in isolated areas and not to take shortcuts through empty parks, fields, or alleys.
  5. Let your children know that they should not accept items from strangers or others without your express permission.
  6. Tell your children that they may contact you at any time to pick them up and where to go if you are not available. Point out which houses in your neighbourhood they may visit if they are in trouble.
  7. Never leave your child alone in a public place, stroller, or car, even for brief periods of time.
  8. Accompany your young children to the toilet in public places.
  9. Go with your children during all door-to-door activities.
  10. Maintain up-to-date identification information on your children at all times, including medical and dental records, photographs, etc. The Australian Police Child ID App is a handy tool to record much of this identification information on your mobile phone.

Recognise, React, Report

The Daniel Morcombe Foundation has developed three easy to remember safety tips to help kids stay safe, "Recognise, React and Report".

  • Recognise – Be alert for the clues that warn us when something is unsafe. These clues can be as simple as smelling smoke which warns us there is a fire or body clues such as butterflies in your stomach warning you that you feel unsure or unsafe.
  • React – If you feel scared, confused, sad or upset you need to REACT. This could even mean breaking a rule, like smashing a window to escape a fire or screaming “NO” to an adult.
  • Report – Tell an adult in your life who cares about your safety when there is a problem. It’s adults who can keep you safe from harm and who can make a situation safe again for you.

Visit the Recognise, React, Report website for more information including downloadable activities and videos.

Voluntary Reasons

Young people can also go missing by choice, often as a short term way of responding to tension or conflict. In these circumstances, going missing is often a symptom rather than the cause of the problem. Youth go missing to remove themselves from something that isn’t making them happy. Running away from the problem can seem like the best available option when they have run out of other solutions. For youth who voluntarily go missing if underlying factors aren’t addressed issues will likely remain and could lead to the young person going missing again.

Talking to your child is one of the best ways to help prevent them from going missing. Seek to build respectful trusting relationships with open communication that is non-judgemental. This provides alternatives for dealing with issues that might otherwise contribute to young people going missing.

While talking through issues can be uncomfortable for both you and your child, it is likely to be better than worrying about where they are and what they are doing if they go missing. The Railway Children (UK) website has more information about talking to your child about running away and there is also a ParentLink guide on running away produced by the ACT government.

Don’t worry about putting ideas in their head. While this is a common fear, if your child isn’t thinking about running away, talking about it is unlikely to make them want to do so. If they are already considering running away then talking about it may open the door to other ways of dealing with their problems.

Don’t be afraid to seek support for yourself or your child from counselling or support services.

More information

The NMPCC has also developed the following factsheets around youth and ‘missing’.

Mental health

The link between mental health and missing persons

Research has identified that one of the factors that contributes to people going missing is the impact of mental health on a person’s ability to cope with life. We work in partnership with a number of mental health organisations to educate the Australian community about the link between mental health and missing persons. We do this with a view to alleviating the trauma experienced by those people living with a mental illness, their families and friends, and to reduce the incidence of people going missing due to mental health issues.

People experiencing poor mental health have numerous triggers that may result in them going missing, these include:

  • frustrations with health professionals
  • opposing ideas with loved ones about how to address a mental health issue
  • uncertainty about who or how to ask for help
  • or a sense that there are no alternatives but to go missing.

Some people go missing for a short period of time, some may go missing time and time again, whilst others disappear for the long term – increasing the risk of being a victim of crime.

There is a persistent stigma within the community of acknowledging that mental health is a community health issue. Both the missing person and those who are left behind can feel that they have little support available to them.

One of the keys to preventing people with mental health issues from going missing is to provide them with alternative options. Communication is part of presenting those options, whether it is between you and your loved one, or the ability for your loved one to receive the professional assistance they need to better cope with life.

Learn to see the signs

Someone you know could be suffering from a mental health issue and may be at risk of going missing. Signs include:

  • talking about feeling very down and nothing can help
  • often being tearful or overly sensitive
  • losing interest in day-to-day activities
  • no longer reaching out to family and friends and isolating themselves

If someone you know is suffering from a mental health issue your understanding and support may prevent them from becoming a missing person.

Getting help

If you or someone you know needs immediate help, call Lifeline (24 hours): 13 11 14.

healthdirect Australia: if you have a non-urgent health concern and you’re not sure what to do, call 1800 022 222 to speak with a registered nurse 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Contact details for other agencies offering information, resources and support services are available on our support services page.

Dementia

Dementia is the term used to describe the symptoms of a group of illnesses which cause a progressive decline in a person’s mental functioning. It is a broad term, which describes the loss of memory, intellect, rationality, social skills and normal emotional reactions.

A major issue for many of those Australians living with dementia is the possible danger associated with them becoming disoriented and placed in harm’s way as a result of getting lost.

Getting lost can be common amongst people with dementia and can be very worrying for those concerned for their safety and well-being. The person, when lost, may appear to be

  • Anxious
  • Confused – unable to answer questions that you would expect to be known
  • May be defensive – I’m alright and don’t need assistance
  • Answers to questions may be vague

The person’s failing memory and declining ability to communicate may make it difficult for them to remember or explain the reason they were out walking or where they were going.

There are many reasons why people with dementia may be unable to find their way back home or to the location they were seeking. These include:

  • Changed environment
  • Loss of memory
  • Excess energy
  • Searching for the past
  • Expressing boredom
  • Confusing night with day
  • Continuing a habit
  • Agitation
  • Discomfort or pain
  • A job to perform
  • Dreams

What can I do to help?

Reducing the risk of unsafe walking is very important and there are several things to consider in making sure a person with dementia is as safe as possible when leaving their home unaccompanied. You do also want to respect a person’s independence and support them to continue an activity they enjoy. It can be a difficult balance to strike.

It is also important that a person with dementia who goes missing be located as quickly as possible. Ways of achieving this can include:

  • Ensuring there are recent photos of the person with dementia to aid identification
  • Discretely labelling personal effects, including wallets and purses and shoes, with the owner’s name, their carer’s name and contact details
  • Purchase a MedicAlert bracelet, or a bracelet that is difficult to remove and have it engraved with identification details
  • You can also get an identification card that can be easily placed in a person’s wallet and include contact details of the person’s next of kin or name and contact number of someone to contact in emergency situations

The authorities must be quickly contacted if you know of a person with dementia does not return as expected and cannot be readily located. They may need urgent help.

The earlier a search is started the more likely it is the person will be located safely and unharmed.

Call the police immediately after you have checked with family and community connections that the person is not with them. Do not wait, make the call to police.

This is a very important issue for our community and we urge carers of people with dementia and their families to be mindful of the dangers.

Dementia Australia is a good starting point for anyone diagnosed with dementia or for the carers and family members of someone with dementia. Call the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500 for information, support and advice. Or head to dementia.org.au.

There are also a range of technological devices that have been developed to assist people maintain their independence that may also be worth investigating.

 

Suicide

Unfortunately a number of people who go missing do so with the intention of ending their own life. Often there is a clear indication that the person intends to take their own life. For example, they may have left a suicide note.

In some cases it may be difficult to determine whether the missing person has left to take their own life, or has simply gone off to 'think things through' or be alone for a while.

Assessing risk of suicide

When assessing if a missing person may be at risk of suicide, a number of interrelated factors are considered.

  • If someone has never been reported missing previously, but has attempted suicide before, they have a higher risk.
  • Someone who has recently talked in depth about taking their own life has a higher risk.
  • If their disappearance coincides with any significant dates in their life, risk of suicide is higher.
  • People with strong religious beliefs are generally less likely to take their own lives.

As well as the points mentioned above, some subtle pre-suicidal behaviours may be displayed. The missing person may have:

  • been significantly more affectionate before their disappearance
  • uncharacteristically left their wedding ring on a bedside cabinet or other obvious place before their disappearance. This is more common with men, particularly elderly men.
  • set their personal affairs in order before their disappearance
  • left wallet, purse, mobile phone, cigarettes or other necessary everyday items behind.

Gender and suicide

The gender of a missing person is also a consideration when assessing the risk of suicide.

  • Suicide is much more common among males than females in every state and territory of Australia. Men are three times more likely to take their own lives than women.
  • With the exception of those aged over 85, the highest rates of suicide are among men in their middle years (i.e. 40-54).
  • Married men are less likely to commit suicide than single men. However, there is no difference in the suicide rates of married and single women.
  • Eleven percent of reported suicides for men in 2013 were aged over 70. For women it was ten percent. The highest age-specific suicide rate for males in 2013 is in the 85+ age group (38.3 per 100,000).

Mental illness and suicide

A large number of people reported as missing to Police suffer from depression. Although there is a strong association between suicide and mental illness, particularly depression, this does not mean that everyone with a mental illness will try to kill themselves.

Two strong indicators that a depressed person may be at risk of suicide are:

  • a suicide note has been written indicating an intention to take their own life
  • the person has recently talked about taking their own life.

However, even if one or both of these indicators are present you should not automatically conclude that the person will try to take their own life. There is usually something in their background which is either the cause of depression or the 'trigger' which has pushed them towards ending their own life.

A trigger can be:

  • relationship problems
  • financial problems
  • sexual problems
  • employment problems
  • education problems
  • medical problems
  • mental health problems
  • addiction problems
  • recent bereavement
  • school bullying
  • cyber bullying

If someone suffering from depression indicates an intention to take their own life and has one or more of the above triggers present in their life, that person is at a higher risk of suicide.

Homelessness

A person experiencing homelessness may be having issues with aspects of life that prevent access to safe and secure shelter. More than 100,000 people receive support from homeless services annually. Men, women, young people, children and families are among the homeless population.

The largest single cause of homelessness in Australia is domestic and family violence, which overwhelmingly affects women and children. Poverty and lack of affordable housing are also significant causes of homelessness. One in two people get turned away each night from overstretched services. Some 16,000 people experience ‘primary’ homelessness, which is living on the street or in improvised shelters.

Homelessness can cause a range of health problems, as well as social isolation, and a sense of shame. Though demand is very high, services exist to help homeless people reconnect with their communities, find stable housing and resolve health and personal issues.

The reasons why people become homeless or missing are diverse. However; there are some similar risk factors and experiences that characterise homelessness and/or being missing.

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