Children Health

The pandemic is a blow to mental health – and that means more missing children | Francisco Garcia

The first few years of life weren’t easy for Leo*. His mother was severely dependent on drugs, as were other members of his family. There were periods of neglect, and he was taken into the care of his local authority while still a very young child. Now 16, Leo lives in semi-independent accommodation. But his difficulties haven’t evaporated. Often he has felt lonely and unwanted. On several recent occasions, Leo has been the subject of a missing persons report. When visited by caseworkers after returning, conversation has repeatedly turned to his mental health struggles. He just feels low most of the time.

Leo’s story is not unique, just as the UK’s missing persons crisis is nothing new: 170,000 people are reported missing every year, at a rate of one every 90 seconds. More than 70,000 are children and the majority, like Leo, boomerang in and out of sight repeatedly, perhaps living in care or unstable households. Though it’s rarely possible to pinpoint one single cause leading to a disappearance, poor mental health is very often a significant contributing factor. One in five children subject to a return interview with the charity Missing People has disclosed information about mental health issues.

This much was true long before the pandemic. But the events of the past 18 months have only accelerated existing trends. In a report published by the social business and charity Catch-22, the link between children’s mental health and missing episodes is made explicit. Its own data has shown that mental health was a factor in a third of all children’s missing incidents reported between April 2020 and April 2021. The highest figures came between October and December 2020, in the teeth of lockdown and school closures. But even after the end of restrictions, rates have remained alarmingly high.

When someone returns after they have been missing, there is an invaluable chance to understand some of what led to the disappearance in the first place. And most missing people – whether adults or children – do return. The latest figures suggest that 90% of missing children are back in sight within 48 hours. Statutory guidance in England and Wales now states that every one of these returned children should be offered an independent “return home interview” (known as return discussions in Scotland). They are supposed to offer the chance of an intervention, conducted by a trusted non-police body, such as Catch-22 or Missing People.

Leo’s story is one of many. Take 15-year-old Alice*. Her relationship with her parents was already fractious, and lockdown exacerbated matters. Alice had quickly become isolated and found remote learning difficult. Already living with several neurodivergent conditions, she had put herself under huge pressure to conceal her mental health struggles from her family. Even after the loosening of restrictions, arguments have persisted – mostly centred on schoolwork and seeing friends. Unable to cope at home, Alice has repeatedly gone missing and has begun to self-harm.

Clearly there is something deeply broken, in a year when record numbers of children and adolescents have been referred to mental health services in England. Between 2020 and 2021, NHS data shows there were 527,339 referrals in total, up 33% from 2019. The wider UK picture is just as troubling. In early December, it was revealed that nearly 2,000 young people in Scotland had been waiting more than a year for an appointment with child and adolescent mental health services – a rise of 106% from 2020.

Statistics hardly represent the lives of increasingly vulnerable young people like Leo and Alice. For one consultant child psychiatrist in Liverpool who spoke recently to the BBC, the consistent severity of self-harm is the worst they’d ever seen. In times of severe distress, the likelihood of going missing only increases. The majority of missing young people might return “safe and well”, but there are many who don’t. One in seven of those who completed return home interviews with Missing People had been sexually exploited.

Crises rarely emerge fully formed overnight. They tend to build over years. Cuts to children’s mental health services are nothing new, even if the effects of the pandemic have brought things to an unignorable boiling point. It’s why one of Catch-22’s key recommendations involves timely access to professional support. After all, collating scrupulous data from returnees is one thing; turning it into action is quite another.

Our society is riven by deep inequalities, and the world of missing people is no different. For children living with poor mental health, in poverty or flitting in and out of the care system, the risk of disappearance is significantly increased. These are not academic questions – the stakes could hardly be higher. This summer marked a first in the history of Catch-22’s missing services. A child with significant mental health problems had been reported missing and was later found to have taken their own life. They were just 14 years old.

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