“My world was falling apart”: the nature and scale of harm experienced by missing adults in the UK

Almost 400 adults are reported missing in the UK each day. However, very little is known about why adults go missing. This includes how and why they come to harm while missing as well as the impact being missing has on their life when they return. There is a substantial gap in understanding of the wider nature and scale of harm experienced while adults are missing.

Our research, “My World is Falling Apart”, aims to:

  1. Identify why adults go missing and how this links to harm or threats of harm
  2. Identify the nature and scale of harm being experienced by adults while they are missing and the impact of this harm after their return
  3. Identify how Missing People, the police, and other agencies need to respond to missing adults to prevent and reduce harm.

A mixed methods approach has been used in this research. This included conducting a literature review, analysing 425 records held by Missing People, analysing 125 police force records, and original research conducted with adults who have been missing.

The research finds that the prevalence of harm experienced by missing adults is much higher than currently shown in national statistics: over 75% as opposed to 10% contained in the National Crime Agency statistics.

Key findings from the report include:

  • 3 in 4 adults who have been missing experienced harm while away (49 of 64)
  • 40% of returned missing adults disclosed trying to take their own life (26 of 63)
  • 60% disclosed experiencing some other form of harm, including being threatened, sexually assaulted or experiencing physical violence while away
  • In cases where someone died while missing, the most common cause was confirmed or suspected suicide

The charity conducted research with 64 adults who have been missing, with the most commonly disclosed type of harm related to suicide:

  • Over half (51%; 32 of 63) said that they had ‘thought about taking your life, but did not try to do so’ while missing
  • 4 in 10 (41%; 26 of 63) had ‘made an attempt or attempts to take your own life’ while missing

There was also clear evidence of harm related to crime, with 1 in 3 adults disclosing that they had experienced an unwelcome sexual approach or were assaulted sexually while missing. Nearly 1 in 4 experiencing physical violence or force.

The research also found that being missing is having a significant impact on the lives of people when they return. 66% of missing adults said that being missing impacted their mental health and over half (57%; 34 of 60) said that going missing had a negative impact on their relationships with their family and their own sense of wellbeing. And while the majority of adults experienced harm while away, the vast majority did not try to access help or support (65%; 41 of 63).

Our recommendations

The report contains findings about why adults go missing, information about cases in which the person sadly dies, and cases in which the person is still missing. There are recommendations about what the police, the charity, and others can do to better respond to and support missing adults, including:

  • The need to understand as fully as possible the risks each adult faces when they are reported missing through detailed, effective risk assessment processes, including using professional curiosity to ensure police are making accurate risk assessment decisions
  • Using the point of return as a key opportunity to identify harm suffered and any support needed for returned missing adults

Information sheets

We have also developed a number of information sheets that can be downloaded separately. These information sheets cover the key findings and themes explored in the research:

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