National missing persons coordination centre

Why do people go missing?

People go missing for a variety of reasons, both intentional and unintentional. About one third goes missing again, often under similar circumstances.

Reasons for going missing include:

  • anxiety
  • depression and other mental illnesses
  • conflicts within families and other relationships
  • misadventure
  • homelessness
  • dementia
  • domestic violence
  • becoming a victim of crime
  • drugs/alcohol abuse
  • natural disasters
  • through suspicious circumstances.

For young people, family dysfunction and conflict, miscommunication, issues associated with puberty and peer pressure, mental health issues, child abuse/neglect, poor coping skills and drug and alcohol problems are amongst some of the reasons for going missing.

Circumstances can limit people’s choices and make them more vulnerable to leaving their usual environment. Sometimes people are not even aware that they have been reported missing, while others go missing in response to personal tragedy or what they perceive as insurmountable problems. There are a multitude of issues which trigger a missing person incident.

One way of understanding the breadth of reasons that people go missing is to visualise it as a continuum. Every missing person’s circumstances sit somewhere along the line from those who decide to go missing through to those who are forced.

Researchers (Biehal, Mitchell & Wade 2003) proposed this continuum to define the scope of reasons why people go missing. The continuum ranges from intentional to unintentional absence, with intervals spanning:

  • ‘decided’ (relationship breakdown, escaping personal problems, escaping violence and mental health problems)
  • ‘drifted’ (which means that people simply lose touch with their families and friends)
  • ‘unintentional absence’ (Alzheimer’s disease, other mental health problems, accident or misadventure, and miscommunication)
  • ‘forced’ (being a victim of crime such as homicide or abduction).

The continuum was developed to address the issues surrounding the use of terms such as voluntary and involuntary as these terms were sometimes misleading around determining choice or control in the decision to go missing. Research conducted in the UK also revealed that people who go missing intentionally do not generally identify their situation with the concept of being ‘missing’ and instead more readily identified with terms such as – ‘running away’, ‘disappearing’, and ‘taking time out’.

Strategies to help

One of the keys to preventing people from intentionally going missing is by providing them with alternative options. Previous research into missing persons has identified three groups within the community most at risk of going missing:

We target these at risk groups through a range of prevention strategies.

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Australian Federal Police