‘Going missing wasn’t a conscious choice’ – why do some people just walk away from their lives?

Sitting at her dining room table in Hampshire, 60-year-old Karen Bone tells the story of her son’s disappearance. It was early March 2018 when Matt Bone, 26, left the family home after telling his parents he was going for a walk. “He came downstairs, took his front door key and walked out. We thought he’d gone to clear his head. Later that day we were due at my mum’s for her birthday celebration. He never came back.”

Matt had been an academically gifted child. He had sailed through school, before completing a degree in environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia, where he swiftly moved on to his doctorate. His research was going well, taking him around Britain and beyond, even as far as Antarctica. “He seemed on top of things to begin with,” his mother explains. But there were faint warning signs too, “things you go back on retrospectively – though, at the time, you’d think, ‘Oh that’s just Matt.’”

He would move home often, which his parents rationalised as being part of the academic lifestyle. It became increasingly clear, though, that Matt was struggling with his mental health; his relations with friends and the university were beginning to suffer. At the end of 2017, he moved back home, where he began to spend more and more time in his bedroom. This was when Bone says she really started to worry.

Then came the disappearance in March 2018. Panic had ratcheted up when Matt hadn’t returned by the evening. After a local search, his parents formally reported him missing to the police. There were a few tenuous sightings from members of the public, then the trail went cold. For two years, the Bone family lived in limbo, waiting for any word of Matt’s whereabouts. It wasn’t until June 2020 that his remains were discovered by a farmer in a Worcestershire field, more than 100 miles away. The coroner ruled the death officially unexplained, while police released a statement saying they didn’t have any cause for suspicion.

The missing persons crisis is a silent epidemic across the UK. Around 170,000 people are reported missing every year – a figure that charities and police have long acknowledged as a significant underestimate. One disappearance is officially recorded every 90 seconds. Despite a brief bout of Covid-occasioned irregularity and partial decline, the figures have broadly returned to where they were.

Not enough is known about what happens to people when they go missing. In 1992, the Home Office pledged to set up a national register of missing people accessible by police forces across the UK, though, 30 years later, this has still to become a reality. We do know that the reasons underpinning a disappearance are complex. Some will have left at their own volition, while others will have been taken and harmed. These are the stories that tend to dominate news cycles and grab our horrified collective attention.

Then there are those who are never found, including more than 600 unidentified bodies held on a database by the UK Missing Persons Unit. Mysteries without an ending, leaving an agonising lack of resolution for the loved ones left behind.

Most missing people, however, do return. Almost all missing adults return within two days, though this doesn’t mean they’re unscathed. Research by Missing People, the UK’s only charity dedicated to the issue, found that more than three quarters of adults with direct personal experience of being missing reported experiencing harm while away, compared with just 10% in the National Crime Agency’s own figures. This isn’t an abstract statistical issue. Of those surveyed by Missing People, 40% reported trying to take their own life, while the majority were either threatened or experienced physical or sexual assault.

Often it isn’t just one thing that’s happened. But one thing might have been the trigger

Jane Hunter, Missing People

“As far as we know, for most, going missing is the result of something not being right with their life,” explains Jane Hunter, Missing People’s senior research and impact manager. “Whether that’s feeling unsafe or unhappy where they live, or they might not be able to make ends meet. What we hear the most and what this research found was that the main driver for adults to go missing is mental health.”

The charity found that 94% of those interviewed cited poor mental health as a cause, while two thirds said that the experience of being missing had led to a further decline whether through difficulties readapting to “regular” life or because of the impact of what they had experienced while away. Karen Bone says they’ll never know exactly what happened to Matt during his absence, or the precise nature of his mental distress in the years preceding it. Despite their pain and grief, she is grateful that her family has any degree of closure at all. “Deep down, I think it was maybe a mother’s instinct that things weren’t going to end happily. But we almost count ourselves lucky that Matt was found. Some people never get that outcome.”

The missing are not a homogenous group. People disappear for all sorts of reasons: something troubling has happened, some vulnerability opened up that has culminated in the person drifting out of sight. “Often it isn’t just one thing that’s happened,” explains Hunter. “But one thing might have been the trigger. Perhaps someone has been recently bereaved and something happens that causes them to go.”

This is partly what played out for 59-year-old Ju Blencowe, who grew up in Staffordshire, where she still lives with her partner. Her childhood wasn’t easy. “I really struggled,” she says. “From an early age I didn’t fit in.” In her early teens, she spent some time in psychiatric care. It was the mid-1970s and there weren’t any specialist children’s units in the local area, so she found herself in an adult hospital. Later, after studying at art school in Lancashire, Blencowe completed a social work degree in her early 30s, then trained as an educator and moved into academia, working at several universities in the Midlands. Despite her flourishing career, Blencowe’s struggles never really went away. “I just learned to hide them by studying more, by working more,” she says. “I was an overachiever. But that’s something that helped me stay safe really.”

In 2016, her mother died after a decade of living with dementia. The two were exceptionally close. Caring for her mother, while juggling a demanding career and her own mental health, proved chaotic. “I was teaching subjects relating to dementia and mental capacity, so it all sort of morphed into one. I was living the theory and it was too much.” Blencowe lost her job in the same week her mother died; it felt like everything had been stripped away. Going missing, Blencowe says, wasn’t a conscious choice. On the first anniversary of her mother’s death, she put on her best suit and packed a bag with a few photographs and her mother’s cardigan, before ordering a taxi to the local station and boarding the next train to London. She checked into the hotel in Hyde Park where her parents had spent their honeymoon decades before.

There hadn’t been anything like a plan. The following days saw a deeply vulnerable Blencowe move across the city at random. At the time, she didn’t consider herself a “missing person”; she was too dejected to give this blur of experiences a name. But at home, her loved ones had waited in anguish, hoping for an answer. She was eventually reported to be “safe and well” after approaching police and being taken for a mental health assessment, via a London police station, but this was not how she would have described her situation. Someone, who she only later found out was a doctor, asked Blencowe a few questions before saying she was free to go. “I never even saw a social worker. It was the middle of the night, it was pitch dark and the woman at reception gave me a leaflet on mental health and said something that’s stayed with me for so long. She said, ‘A person like you shouldn’t be in a place like this.’ What the hell did that actually mean? It was a horrible experience.”

Important questions should be asked, such as: what harm might have occurred? And what support is needed now?

A return interview should, in theory, serve as a learning opportunity; to trace what happened and what needs to be addressed in this person’s life, so they don’t go missing again. For many, emerging after a missing episode represents the start of a story, rather than an ending. It is unlikely that the complex chain of factors that led to the disappearance will have magically evaporated overnight. Important questions should be posed, such as what harm might have occurred, before and during the episode? And, critically, what support might this person now need?

When they’re conducted properly, return interviews are effective, as demonstrated by a 2020 evaluation of Missing People’s work. Of the interviews conducted by the charity, almost all “resulted in the disclosure of risk and vulnerability by the missing person”. By law, every missing child is required to be offered a return interview, conducted by a non-threatening, non-policing professional, or at least in a safe and supportive space to talk at length about their experience. This is supposed to apply to adults too, but Blencowe wasn’t offered a return interview, or anything that resembled it. “Nobody told me and nothing happened. That was it.”

The years following her return have not been easy, though an autism diagnosis has helped her better understand much of the past and present. Missing People provided crucial support, as did the family and friends around her and her partner. It has been tough, with services in Staffordshire thin on the ground after years of sustained cuts, and it is only recently that Blencowe has been able to access specialist therapeutic services. There have been periods of financial stress and an occasionally overwhelming sense of shame about what happened, though she now understands that she was lost years before she was ever a “missing person” in society’s eyes. The shame isn’t so acute now, she says. “I’m just being me and doing what I need to do to stay well.”

For Bone, it remains important to keep talking about Matt. People can be cautious approaching the subject – if they do at all – perhaps mindful of the grief her family has experienced. But it’s important not to forget the good times they shared, or let her son be defined by the years of his absence. “We’ll often be having a conversation and ask: ‘What would Matt think about this?’ You know, we knew him pretty well. It’s just about keeping those memories alive.”

If You Were There: Missing People and the Marks They Leave Behind by Francisco Garcia is published by Mudlark, £14.99 (£9.99, paperback). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email [email protected]. You can contact the mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visiting mind.org.uk

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