When a loved one goes missing, those closest to them become law enforcement’s greatest asset. One of the tenets of any quality investigation is research and close examination of the subject’s habits. Clues to a person’s whereabouts or fate can often be found in their regular daily routine. However, when the missing person suffers from mental health issues, families and law enforcement are often without recourse.
A person vanishing without a trace or without warning is terrifying enough; one day they’re there, walking, talking, laughing, doing the things they love. Then one day, they’re not. The void left by that person creates shock waves in a community. Their families are rocked by their disappearance, sick with worry. Their friends do whatever they can to help with the search efforts—handing out fliers, talking to locals, giving law enforcement any relevant information. When the missing person has a mental illness, all of that anxiety is exacerbated to the nth degree. Erratic behavior and lack of routine can leave law enforcement without a place to start. And of course, the families still wring their hands while they wait for answers.
Because mental illness can often be a Rubix cube of complexity, there is a great need of resources for the families and communities of missing mentally ill. While it’s not uncommon for mentally ill persons to go missing, there is a disproportionate number of resources available for families and communities affected by the absence of a missing mentally ill person. Families need roadmaps with special focus on their loved one’s mental illness; checklists of crucial steps to take once it’s apparent they’ve vanished. One of the largest champions of mental health awareness is the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI. Their online resources offer detailed but straightforward instructions for the caregivers of the mentally ill after they go missing. Steps like contacting law enforcement immediately, reaching out to the missing person’s friends, registering them with the National and Unidentified Persons System (NAMUS).
Once their loved ones are registered, NAMI educates their users on how they can do their part in assisting in the investigation. They educate families on how to make a flyer—what information, what sort of picture, how to get it noticed on the street. There’s also a detailed guide on creating a social media page or website so families can work towards getting your loved one’s face to go viral.
While media coverage of the disappearance is ideal, organizations like NAMI place a heavy emphasis on the use of social media as a tool. It is the world-wide web, after all. Constant sharing and re-sharing of the missing person’s poster online can drive a loved one’s name and face to trending status. In our social media-saturated culture, that kind of visibility is priceless. As long as sharing remains steady, someone will eventually recognize the missing person. People like Christopher Moreland, who walked away from their familiar environments while experiencing mental health symptoms, were eventually located due to the diligent use of social media. Constantly sharing Chris’s story on various social media platforms, his mother, Elise Cash reiterated again and again, “All it takes is ONE person to recognize Chris.” Her words proved true when she was contacted by a woman who lived 240 miles away, claiming she’d seen Chris in her town, living on the street.
A majority of missing persons with mental illness who disappear are older teens and young adults. As a result, there is no guarantee locating the missing person will end in a happy reunion. When Elise Cash saw her son again after all those years searching for him, he did not recognize her, and refused to return home with her. No authority in the land could compel him to return. Once law enforcement has located a missing mentally ill person, they cannot detain them for any reason unless they have broken the law, or are a danger to themselves or others. When loved ones choose not to come home—whether in their right mind or not—it can be very emotional for their friends and family. These affected parties should seek out their local NAMI branch by going online where they can find a wealth of resources and support groups for those with no other recourse. Caring for a person with mental illness is one of the most difficult things a person can do—even more difficult when you can’t care for them—so finding a well of support is paramount.
Ultimately, the internet is one of our greatest tools. Not only can its potential for being an information superhighway be utilized to spread a missing mentally ill person’s story, but it can also connect you to some of the best resources in North America. The most important thing, however, is communicating with one another—educating our communities on mental illness so they will be better equipped to assist in search efforts for mentally ill persons. Families of missing persons need stacked support from the circles around them while they search, and the internet helps connect those people together through Facebook groups, message boards, and instant messaging. A bonding agent for fragmented families to share their experiences and remind one another there is a vast network of people who can relate to what they’re going through.