Missing Persons Week: Calls for research to find out why missing people leave

Published 31 July 2016

Understanding why people go missing and how to support them when they return, is often a story never told, according to a University of New England researcher.

Dr Sarah Wayland from the School of Health says there has been no previous research in Australia that seeks to incorporate the stories of returned missing people to understand how and why people go missing.

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“Every national Missing Persons Week, we interview the family and friends of missing people and we share the images of missing people but we rarely look at why those people go missing in the first place and what they might need once they come back,” says Dr Sarah Wayland.

35,000 people are reported missing to police every year, or 100 people everyday. About 97% of those are found within a couple of weeks.

“People who have returned after being missing need to be heard in isolation from what the family feels. The story of the missing person is one we need to understand better.”

She says often people are just so relieved their loved ones are back they disconnect from support.

“We have no data about what made them go in the first place and what made them come back. Most importantly we need to support them to potentially not go missing again. We may not be understanding the scope of the issue if we fail to invite returned missing people into the conversation.”

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Dr Wayland previously worked as a counsellor with families of missing people.

“In my thirteen years in this field I have never talked in depth to someone who has been missing and come back again. Once families have been reunited with that person and all is ok, they disconnect from support. So there isn’t a lot of opportunity to find out why, because everyone is so excited they are back.”

She says there are many reasons why people are reported missing. The most recent national research, conducted by the Australian Institute of Criminology in 2007 needs revisiting to include the diversity of disappearances by including the perspective of the returned missing person. Understanding the pieces of the puzzle, not just from law enforcement and the families who may have been left behind, can assist everyone affected when a person vanishes.

“In some cases it can be as simple as missing people not realising they were reported missing, or more complex stories like young people disconnecting because of power struggles in the homes or mental health issues affecting people who feel they have no choice but to vanish. We owe it to them to hear their voices.”