Missing persons and suicide

Unfortunately a number of people who go missing do so with the intention of committing suicide. Often there is a clear indication that the person intends to take their own life. For example, they may have left a suicide note.

In some cases it may be difficult to determine whether the missing person has gone to commit suicide or has simply gone off to 'think things through' or be alone for a while.

Assessing risk of suicide

To assess if a missing person may be at risk of suicide, a number of interrelated factors need to be considered.

  • If someone has never been reported missing previously, but has attempted suicide before, they have a higher risk.
  • Someone who has recently talked in depth about taking their own life has a higher risk.
  • If their disappearance coincides with any significant dates in their life, risk of suicide is higher.
  • People with strong religious beliefs are generally less likely to take their own lives.

As well as the points mentioned above, some subtle pre-suicidal behaviours may be displayed. The missing person may have:

  • been significantly more affectionate before their disappearance
  • uncharacteristically left their wedding ring on a bedside cabinet or other obvious place before their disappearance. This is more common with men, particularly elderly men
  • set their personal affairs in order before their disappearance
  • left wallet, purse, mobile phone, cigarettes or other necessary everyday items behind.

Gender and suicide

The gender of a missing person is highly significant.

  • Men are three times more likely to take their own lives than women.
  • Men aged 20-30 are at the highest risk of suicide, followed closely by men aged between 40-50.
  • Girls in their teens are at a high risk of suicide
  • Married men are less likely to commit suicide than single men. However, there is no difference in the suicide rates of married and single women.
  • Eight percent of reported suicides for men in 2012 were aged over 70. For women it was nine percent.

Mental illness and suicide

A large number of people reported as missing to Police suffer from depression. Although there is a strong association between suicide and mental illness, particularly depression, this does not mean that everyone with a mental illness will try to kill themselves.

Two strong indicators that a depressed person may be at risk of suicide are:

  • a suicide note has been written indicating an intention to take their own life
  • the person has recently talked about taking their own life.

However, even if one or both of these indicators are present you should not automatically conclude that the person will try to take their own life. There is usually something in their background which is either the cause of depression or the 'trigger' which has pushed them towards ending their own life.

A trigger can be:

  • relationship problems
  • financial problems
  • sexual problems
  • employment problems
  • education problems
  • medical problems
  • mental health problems
  • addiction problems
  • recent bereavement
  • school bullying
  • cyber bullying

If someone suffering from depression indicates an intention to take their own life and has one or more of the above triggers present in their life, that person is at a higher risk of suicide.

Older adults and suicide

Suicidal behaviour in older adults has a number of features that are not shared with younger age groups. Older adults make fewer non-fatal suicide attempts than younger people. Reasons for this include:

  • their being physically frailer, and therefore less likely to survive suicide attempts
  • they are more often living alone, and so less likely to be found in time to be helped after a suicide attempt
  • they use more lethal methods of suicide attempt, perhaps reflecting a stronger intent to die.

Although the risk factors for elderly suicide overlap with the risk factors for other age groups, amongst older age groups mental health factors, predominantly depression, play a more significant role. Possible reasons include:

  • abuse or neglect (including financial) by family or carers
  • isolation and loneliness, including being excluded/forgotten by family
  • dementia and/or psychological deterioration
  • grief due to loss of a loved one
  • diagnosis of a terminal illness
  • prospect of being confined to an old persons home
  • self neglect.

For more on this topic visit the Suicide Prevention Information New Zealand website.