Ghost nation: a few faces among thousands of Britons currently missing without trace

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Their faces stare out from the page, some smiling, some tense or preoccupied, all with a hidden story.

Their faces stare out from the page, some smiling, some tense or preoccupied, all with a hidden story. They are people whose lives were heading in one direction and then, abruptly, started in another. Without the bonds of home and job, or family and friends, which bind the rest of us to our identities, the individuals pictured here have embarked on a new adventure.

They are among the missing – the 210,000 people who leave home every year, according to Home Office figures, most with the intention of never returning. The great majority are found and go home within days or even hours. But about 10,000 of the more serious cases are reported each year to the National Missing Persons Helpline.

Today, a study called Lost from View by researchers at the York University provides the first snapshot of this army of the disappeared. The researchers looked at case records of almost 2,000 adults and young people held on the helpline's database from October 1999 to September 2000.

Their findings explode several myths about the missing. The idea of cutting all ties, adopting a new identity and starting a new life in another town or another country exerts a powerful draw. Old problems are buried and new hope born in a single gesture.

One well-known case was that of John Stonehouse, Postmaster General in the 1974 Labour government, who disappeared while swimming off a beach in Miami, Florida. His clothes were recovered but no trace of his body was found.

Some weeks later he was discovered living in Australia under a false passport, where he had fled to escape financial and domestic problems at home after faking his death. He was returned to Britain and jailed for fraud.

A modern twist on the Stonehouse case involved a man who constructed new identities not only for himself but, separately, for the relatives he was planning to leave. He was under a lot of stress and was very protective of his wife and children. Having moved them into new accommodation he destroyed the family home and disappeared. He was discovered months later living under an assumed name with a new job in another town.

But cases in which people plan new lives and construct new identities for themselves are the exception, according to Nina Biehal, a senior research fellow in the social work development unit at York University and lead author of the study.

"The John Stonehouse cases are very rare," she said. "Of those who leave home deliberately, and not as a result of mental problems or dementia, most are the result of the breakdown of a relationship or, for young people, conflict with parents. Some go to escape abuse or domestic violence, others because of financial problems but more often it is an accumulation of stresses that drives them to it. They can't cope."

Ms Biehal, Fiona Mitchell and Jim Wade studied 1,279 cases resolved during 1999-2000 by the National Missing Persons Helpline. Some had been missing for years and 123 were found dead. They also contacted 114 people who had been traced recently and asked them to fill in a questionnaire.

People of all ages go missing, they found, from very young children who are mostly abducted by estranged parents, to people in their 90s who go missing unintentionally because of dementia or similar problems.

The peak ages for disappearing are 13-17, when girls in particular find the strains of adolescence drive them into conflict with their parents, and 24-30, when young men find the demands of forging careers and making relationships overwhelming. Almost three quarters of people aged 13 to 17 who disappear are girls and they put themselves at considerable risk. Four out of 10 slept rough, a third stayed with a stranger and one in eight had been assaulted. Among people aged 24 to 30, the proportions are reversed. Three quarters of those who go missing are men.

One case is that of Richie James (real name: Richard Edwards), the lyricist and guitarist with the Manic Street Preachers who disappeared 24 hours before the band were due to board a flight to New York for a tour in February 1995. Aged 27, he went missing from his London hotel and his car was later found in Bristol but he has not been seen since.

Beyond the age of 30, the propensity to disappear falls and continues to decline with increasing age. But the mid-life crisis can strike at any time. The actor Stephen Fry temporarily dropped out of his life in 1995 after hostile reviews of his performance in a West End production of Cell Mates by Simon Gray. He took a ferry to Zeebrugge and travelled through Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. His breakdown was not unusual for a man of his age who was under pressure and had suffered a setback in his professional life.

But sloughing off the old identity and trying on a new one is not easy. A spokeswoman for the helpline said: "The mechanics are not that difficult but the emotional side is much harder – leaving all your friends and family. A lot of people who go missing just drift out of contact. It's about losing touch."

About 75 per cent of cases handled by the helpline are resolved and in 65 per cent of the cases the missing person is found alive. In the 10 years since it was set up, the helpline has registered 60,000 cases.

The York researchers concluded that almost two thirds of the adults they studied deliberately went missing but that is disputed by the helpline, which said the decision to go was forced on them by circumstance. "It is usually the result of emotional pressure. They hadn't got any alternative," the spokeswoman said.

She added: "Many said they were thinking of killing themselves but didn't have the courage, so they ran away instead. It's a kind of suicide."

Among adults aged 18 to 50, only 12 per cent returned to the family home once they were traced, mostly those who had gone missing unintentionally because of mental problems. At older and younger ages, more of those traced returned home – 39 per cent in the case of those aged 13 to 17, and 25 per cent of those aged over 50, who were more likely to have dementia or a mental illness. But the chances of returning diminished the longer they had been away.

Ms Biehal said: "One of the surprising things was how few returned to or renewed contact with their families after being found. In total, 40 per cent refused to have any contact at all when they were found, which is an indication of how much bitterness they felt and how far things had broken down."

One adult woman, contacted by the helpline on behalf of her father from whom she had been estranged since adolescence, said: "I never went far. He could have found me if he had wanted. Why is he looking for me now?" Those who had been missing for longest found it hardest to renew contact. Often they felt a mixture of guilt and shame over what they had done, which made it harder to repair the rift and prepare the ground for return. Many faced financial hardship. Ms Biehal said the lack of support for missing persons reflected the fact that they were "nobody's baby" – responsibility fell between health, social work, the police and voluntary agencies.

The most pressing need was for assistance, not necessarily to keep families together but to help them to separate in less stressful and distressing ways "People need help to deal with conflict," Ms Biehal said.

Lost from View is published by Policy Press, £15.99. The number for the National Missing Persons Helpline is 0500 700700 (family and friends), or 0800 700740 (message homeline for the missing).