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Dublin: 17 °C Wednesday 12 August, 2020
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Column: The Ohio kidnappings bring the issue of ‘missing persons’ into sharp focus

About 4,000 people go missing for a time in Ireland each year – and the emotional impact on their loved ones, who live with ongoing uncertainty and questions, is immense. They must be given proper support, writes, Dermot Browne.

A missing poster still rests on a tree outside the home of Amanda Berry
A missing poster still rests on a tree outside the home of Amanda Berry
Image: (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

WITH THE NOTABLE exception of some affected communities, a Missing Person event goes largely unnoticed until an event such as happened in Cleveland this week, brings the issue sharply into focus.  Most of us at some time in our lives, have come across a tattered poster pinned to a pole or notice board, with the headline “MISSING PERSON”.

It is hard to believe that in a small country like Ireland about 4,000 people go missing every year, according to figures contained in the Garda Annual Report. In fact, in Ireland the rate of missing persons is as high, or higher, than that of road traffic accident deaths, non-fatal road traffic accidents requiring hospitalisation, and suicide.

Having a loved one who is missing affects many people

While the high number of missing persons is significant it is equally disturbing to learn that for every missing person about 12 people are affected. This includes family members, friends, work colleagues, and community members. Therefore, in any one-year in Ireland as many as 48,000 people feel the effect of the missing persons phenomenon. This large number means that having a loved one who is missing affects people from all walks of life – irrespective of  age, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race, and educational or professional qualifications.

Regardless of the characteristics of the missing person or the circumstances under which the person goes missing, there are impacts on families and friends, including health consequences, direct financial costs incurred, days lost from work or business, impacts on relationships and on routine activities and quality of life.

The disappearance of the missing person can be quite traumatic on their family members and friends – no matter how brief their absence.  The fact that most missing persons are located within a relatively short period of time, rarely compensates for the devastating effects on the family members and friends of missing persons. With news that a loved one is missing they often experience panic, grief, stress, and worry; and these experiences can continue for extended periods.

It can be difficult to understand why someone might choose to go missing

Understandably, many want to know the whereabouts of their loved one and what led to their disappearance. A study conducted on missing persons in Australia suggests that men and women are reported missing almost equally. However, children and young people are reported missing more often than adults are.  The disappearance of a loved may be either voluntary or involuntary. That is, the individual either chose to go missing, or did not choose to go missing.

It can be difficult to understand why someone might choose to go missing, particularly in light of the heartache and anguish it can cause family members and friends. Yet, it is important to remember that choosing to go missing is not a crime. Often there are valid reasons surrounding the voluntary disappearance of an individual, even though we may not always agree with them.

A Missing loved one creates a unique situation for those left behind. There is much confusion about where the missing person is and whether they will return. This brings about feelings of uncertainty, doubt, and insecurity.  Some describe the experience as more traumatic than dealing with a death. When a loved one dies family members and friends can attempt to seek closure. They know the whereabouts of their loved one; can mourn their loss, have the opportunity to say goodbye and the grieving process can begin.

Families go through a terrible trauma and need support

It is vital that those affected by this terrible trauma receive timely and appropriate help. In Ireland, the National Missing Persons Helpline provides information, emotional and practical support for families and friends of our missing.  We have  forged strategic links with Search and Rescue groups throughout the Country and recently become a member of a pan-European Missing Persons Network.

The Helpline is contacted by many individuals and families each week, establishing relationships that give it a unique insight into every aspect of the ordeal.

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The challenge facing the families is reaching a point where they can maintain, tolerate and manage their lives – even in the presence of this ambiguous loss. One thing we’re told time and time again by families of the long-term missing is that even if they find out they had died – as terrible as that would be – it’s preferable to not knowing.

There are many issues that impact on the kind of support the Helpline provides, not only the circumstances of the disappearance and the relationship with the missing person, but the emotional experience, the reactions the family receive from others and the practical implications of dedicating themselves to a search.

It’s a real burden on families and we hear of mental and physical health declining over time. The family must not be made to feel alone and any glimmer of hope must be kept alight.

It’s important to have hope as a method of coping. There is a very real possibility that the person will show up safe and well .

Dermot Browne is the Chairperson at Missing in Ireland Support Service, which was set up in 2003, following a tragic family event. The Missing Persons Helpline website is www.missingpersons.ie. They can be contacted on 1890-442 552 or email info@missingpersons.ie . A 24 hour Confidential Message Home mailbox is available on 1800 911 999.

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Dermot Browne

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