Ann Coffey

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Deaths of missing people could be prevented

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Thursday July 19 2018

Hundreds of lives are being put at risk each year because adults with mental health problems are ‘found and forgotten’ after going missing, according to a Parliamentary Inquiry.  

Ann Coffey – head of the ‘Inquiry into safeguarding missing adults who have mental health issues’ by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults – said that going missing should be a ‘red flag moment’ which ought to trigger help.

But instead tens of thousands of adults nationally are left alone and isolated with no support on their return home.

There are about 126,000 incidents of adults going missing annually. Up to 600 missing people a year are found dead: the most commonly known cause being suicide.

The inquiry heard that about 80 per cent of adults who go missing are experiencing mental health problems and up to one third go missing again.

Figures from the Great Manchester Police revealed that 35 missing people were found dead in the region in the first six months of this year and 22 of them had significant mental health issues. Of the 35, 13 had committed suicide mainly by overdose, hanging and drowning.

MPs heard evidence that nationally the police are struggling to cope alone.

The inquiry’s central recommendation was that mental health services and the Department of Health must take on a greater role given the high levels of missing people suffering from depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses.

Ms Coffey, the chair of the APPG and the Inquiry, said:

“These figures highlight how vital it is to have more mental health provision to support people when they return from going missing.

“Going missing is a red flag moment. A warning sign of crisis in someone’s life that should trigger support. Vulnerable people should not be just found and forgotten.

“The evidence nationally is that the police are firefighting this problem almost single handed. But this is a not predominantly a police problem, it is a health problem and mental health services need to step up before more lives are lost.

“The police can find missing people and check they are alive, but it is up to the health and social care services to help identify risk and to support people on their return and put measures in place to prevent them going missing again.

“Many missing people told us that returning was far more difficult that going missing because their problems have not gone away and they are desperate for help.

“There is no doubt that a more systematic multi-agency approach with a high input from health could prevent deaths and reduce the risk of people repeatedly going missing.”

Police responses to the inquiry revealed that on average up to a third of missing incidents were recorded as involving suicide or self-harm, with one force recording 42 per cent. And yet, according to the inquiry, support is rarely offered and opportunities for intervention and prevention of further harm are missed.

One missing woman told the inquiry that support on return was “woefully inadequate”.  She was seen by a police officer who merely asked her name, address, age and if she wanted to report any crimes.

She was not questioned about why she went missing or offered any specialist support, despite being found in A&E and physically banging her head against a wall while being interviewed. The police simply agreed that she could leave when she said she would go to a friend’s house.

When a missing adult is found it is important that they are supported and everything possible is done to understand why they went missing and to help prevent them doing so again, said the inquiry.

Latest police guidance in 2017 introduced ‘prevention interviews’ to be conducted by the police as soon as a person is found to check that he or she has not experienced harm and to identify ongoing risks. But it was not clear from evidence presented to the inquiry how many police forces are conducting these or how effective they are.

In addition to prevention interviews, police guidance recommends that a more in-depth ‘return interview’ should be carried out by an independent agency to assess the need for ongoing medical assistance.

But shockingly, despite this clear guidance, the inquiry established that return interviews are not being offered to vulnerable missing adults in any part of England, Wales or Northern Ireland. (They are offered in Scotland.)

By contrast, a child who goes missing is automatically offered a return interview and support on return but there is no such statutory responsibility for adults.

MPs concluded that the whole response to adults with mental health problems who go missing needs overhauling and improving.

Recommendations include:

  • Better initial risk assessment and long term support. Improved training of call handlers and frontline officers to identify mental health issues
  • Health services should play a bigger role and mental health professionals should be available to assist the police at all stages of missing investigations.
  • The Department of Health should monitor numbers of people going missing from hospitals and care. About 15 per cent of missing reports relate to hospitals – with one area reporting 29 per cent. The inquiry heard about one hospital trust, where a patient detained under the Mental Health Act took his own life after going missing, was reprimanded by the Coroner for the high numbers going missing from one ward. Investigations revealed that patients had access to a button to release the door so they could let themselves in and out at will.
  • Return interviews and other specialist support should be offered to vulnerable missing adults
  • The College of Policing and the National Police Chiefs’ Council Lead for Missing Persons should carry out a review of the use and effectiveness of initial prevention interviews
  • Local protocols between the police, health and social services should outline pathways to support. Protocols should include automatic strategy meetings when a person goes missing on multiple occasions.
  • The Care Quality Commission should enhance their inspection on patient safety to include the response to adults who go missing while under NHS care
  • Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary should include the response to missing people who are vulnerable because of their mental health in inspections
  • Police and NHS Trusts should map ‘hot spot’ locations with high numbers of missing reports

Josie Allan, Policy and Campaigns Manager at Missing People, said: “Adults who go missing are almost always vulnerable and need better support from professionals upon their return.

“Going missing can be a symptom of wider issues and an improved response could ensure that people are safer and do not feel that going missing is their only option.”