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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 December 2007, 12:02 GMT
Why do men go missing?
Blurred man

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

The mysterious reappearance of canoeist John Darwin, who vanished five years ago, has cast the spotlight on a little-covered phenomenon: middle-aged men who go missing.

Bernard Cook is still receiving post.

But he has not passed over the threshold of his home and reached down to pick it up since 16 November 2005.

Some time around the middle of that day Mr Cook, estates director for the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company and due at an important meeting, took a van from his work and disappeared.

Bernard Cook
Now when the phone goes you don't expect it to be news
Bernadette Cook
Whose husband, above, is missing

In the two years and 18 days that have passed there has only been one sighting, at a church in Coventry, that has given his family any hope.

It would be understandable to fear he had killed himself, but despite extensive police efforts no body has been found. He has not tried to access his bank accounts and there was no evidence of preparations for disappearance.

When we think of missing people we tend to assume vulnerable women, troubled teenagers and children running away. But there is a category of missing person that receives less coverage in the national news: men over the age of 30.

Across the UK, there are as many as 210,000 missing persons reports every year, although with one person often being counted several times for numerous disappearances, the total number of people involved is only a fraction of that.

Media coverage

A 2004 random sample of 1,000 missing cases in London found that more than three-quarters were resolved within 48 hours, while 99% were resolved within a year.

The figures suggest that while the teenage missing are more likely to be girls, of all those over the age of 24 who disappear, 73% are male. Of those missing for more than a year, the longer they are missing the more likely they are to be older men.

Missing People, formerly the National Missing Persons Helpline (NMPH), works to get these men the same attention as others who have disappeared and whose cases are more readily picked up by the media.

Crowd of people
Some missing people assume new identities

"We will publicise all cases where they meet our criteria," says Geoff Newiss, at the charity. "That has nothing to do with age or being photogenic. We hear every day how hard it is for families."

Bernard Cook's wife Bernadette slips between past and present tenses when speaking about her husband. The mental burden on her and their children has been immense.

"What has happened is so awful you just can't imagine what it would be like. You are not aware, you go on autopilot."

Emotional pain is exacerbated by practical difficulties. Accessing bank accounts or settling other financial affairs is a problem. The efforts of supportive friends and family have been vital.

And the efforts - by both the police and his family - to find Mr Cook continue. With the missing man a keen climber and a Catholic, posters are in climbing huts and churches across the country.

Immense workload

"After three to four months you realise this could be a long, long time and you prepare yourself. Now when the phone goes you don't expect it to be news," Mrs Cook says.

Mr Cook's workload had been immense. But despite regularly working until two or three in the morning, the estates director had showed no signs he was about to be overwhelmed.

"He was the least likely person for this to happen to. I knew he was overloaded with work but that had been the case for about the last eight months. We are all under pressure but this was excessive.

There is a small group of people who go missing for a week or two and then reappear not being able to remember what happened
Malcolm Payne

"It must have been a massive breakdown to do anything like this. He was not a man who avoided situations, he was a man who adored his children."

Of those who have vanished, many have decided to go missing, Newiss says, for reasons including relationship breakdown, family, financial, emotional, and mental health problems.

And there can be a degree of ambiguity, especially in the case of men, over what it means to be missing.

As Newiss explains, some of those who are the subject of reports "never were missing in any meaningful sense".

Malcolm Payne studied records of missing persons prior to the setting up of the NMPH, and recognises the difficulty. He has defined being missing as an absence "interfering with the performance by that person of expected social responsibilities".

Psychological stress

"They are not missing to themselves. It is only the people who are left behind who see them as missing", he says.

"There is a small group of people who go missing for a week or two and then reappear not being able to remember what happened. That's often because of work stress."

Even for those who are missing for months or years, it can be suggested, as it has in the case of the canoeist, that they are suffering from some kind of dissociative amnesia or fugue, a condition sparked by psychological stress.

The US medical encyclopaedia, the Merck Manual, describes dissociative fugue as "a disorder in which one or more episodes of sudden, unexpected, and purposeful travel from home (fugue) occur, during which a person cannot remember some or all of his past life".

Most often found in those who have suffered in wars, accidents, or natural disasters, the condition typically lasts only hours or days, before the sufferer recovers all or part of his original identity.

Isolated cases

Forensic psychiatrist Cosmo Hallstrom says cases of long-term dissociative fugue are extremely rare.

"In the isolated numbers of cases I've found, it has been convenient to escape. It is very hard to decide what part is dissociative and what part is conscious. You are highly reliant on what the person tells you."

Some cases can perhaps be explained with an answer that is somewhere between a dissociative condition and a conscious decision to adopt a new identity to avoid severe stresses, Dr Hallstrom says.

"People who are under pressure in a difficult situation who stop and walk out and live a different existence and decide they want to refind themselves have to come up with a plausible explanation."

While fugues may be rare, it is clear that for most missing men the pressure on them has been immense.

And for Mrs Cook, the agony of waiting goes on.

"If he has had a complete breakdown and then he regains some sort of normal mental thinking he will be horrified at what he has done and the effect it has had on us. He is the most selfless man I have ever met," she says.

Send us your comments using the form below.

I am a middle aged woman who went missing for four months. I don't think anyone knew how much pressure I had been under for a very long time. So I took some of my money and my dog and checked into a motel that catered to people who were 'under the radar'. Prostitutes, men who were recently divorced, really, a huge variety of people. I had no idea that people were so concerned about me and the police had been called. However, it was the best thing I have ever done. I now put on my calendar regular scheduled vacations (one week every 4 months) no matter what.
Maggie, San Francisco, USA

With respect to Alan from Trowbridge, and his statement that no one needs to work until 2 am etc, well, sorry to say this but lots and lots of people do this on a regular basis. I work 14 hours a day as an average, seven days a week as an average, and have done so for the past 9 years. And the reason is that sometimes there is just no other option, it's called expectation and pressure. I have no idea what a holiday is, maybe the odd weekend every few months. The pressure of my responsibilities is immense and sometimes I want to sleep forever just to escape it. The dissapearing part is something that I have contemplated, and longed for at times, but i haven't done it so far because of my family. But, the thought, and the longing is always there.
Silentmonk, Gloucester

Stress can creep up on you.I thought I was immune until pushing myself too hard for too long finally caught up with me a couple of months ago.I found myself behaving out of character and only realising what I'd done after the event. Sadly I lost a good friend through my sometimes bizarre behaviour. I didn't "disappear" but did spend most of the time I didn't have to mix with people, work, shopping etc indoors on my own.

I realised the consequences of my behaviour and have made lifestyle changes to ease the problem. I never thought I'd suffer from anything remotely like stress, never thought I'd seek medical advice for anything psychiatric either but when I did it was a real help to be told I was "a textbook case" and not some kind of lunatic, and also to get advice that was just common sense but my mind wasn't doing a lot of that at the time. Don't think it won't happen to you, like I did, and if you even think there's something wrong talk to someone straight away,even if it's only NHS Direct, preferably your GP, no-one else has to know unless you tell them.
Dave, Plymouth

S, Edinburgh -

You and your family might find it helpful to go to Al-Anon meetings. Al-Anon is for people who, like you, have found living with an alcoholic to be incredibly harmful to their own well-being. They are very welcoming and supportive, and help the families and friends of alcoholics by sharing their experience, strength and hope.
M, Cardiff

I can understand perfectly why people do it. I am only 23 and sometimes I feel like just jumping on a plane to somewhere else where I wouldn't be known to anyone. Occasionally the pressure from families as well as work gets unbearable. Everybody, especially parents and/or partners expect you to choose between them and somebody or something else and it just is not fair.
TB, Birmingham

For nearly two years now I have been working steadily for the rights of my son to have an education. I have gone extended periods with no sleep at all, but usually I get about five hours of sleep. On top of fighting for his right to continue his public education, I have to deal with therapists who work with him in my home about six days a week. I also have two daughters. I don't have a husband. I don't have a family to support me emotionally. And I am still not missing.

In fact, I am unable to hold down a job or have time for myself and I do not receive child support from his father, and that is a massive financial burden. I am still not missing... although I do worry that one day it will all become too much. Two years of constant pressure, constant court battles and constant advocacy and less-than-ideal results has not caused me to "snap" and become a different person. I hope that never happens to me and I do wish there could be more tangible evidence that this "just happens".
Jennifer K, USA

I can relate to this, working until 11pm, working weekends was the norm. I had a sick partner so could not quit my job as I was the bread winner, talking to my employer always resulted in empty promises, but the thought of losing my job kept me from complaining. Leaving my life seemed like the only possible way to end the stress. Even the doctor sent me back to work and told me to "talk it through with my boss". After repeatedly visiting the GP she prescribed anti-depressants, NOT really what I was after.
Ian, Surrey

After her father died, my wife, already stressed out with work and other problems, developed severe amnesia and for a number of months effectively disappeared. After she recovered, she described her then mental state as being like a distant observer of her own life -- she felt completely disconnected from her own self.
Peter, Bangkok, Thailand

I understand the stresses that a person can be under and it doesn't surprise me that people can just disappear. The amount of pressure society puts on individuals to "perform" at work and to conform to the accepted norm is unfair and naive. We are not supposed to withstand so much stress without a physical outlet. If people want to disappear and start a new life it is up to them. I know that they are often leaving a family behind who will suffer for it but that is a product of the society we live in. Caging an animal does not make it happy and we are all "caged" in some way by the constraints of modern culture. It is not the fault of the individual but the fault of us all.
Phil B, Manchester

In the quest for ever more profits, companies are increasingly 'rationalising' their workforce, putting increased pressure on the 'lucky' ones who remain. Some companies even demand a 10% year on year reduction in costs & 10% increase in profits. For some the only way out is escape. With no easy way back.
Martin Elton, Thornbury - Sth Glos

Apparently this is becoming increasingly common in countries such as Japan where the pressure of work and family responsibilities becomes just too much. I feel so sorry for the families left behind, but also for the individual who does this sort of thing as they obviously needed help and were too afraid or ashamed to ask for it. With the pressures of modern society, will we be seeing an increase in this sort of thing?
Debbie, London

My brother has been missing since late May. He is 43 with a drink problem. He split up with his girlfriend a year ago this month, tried to kill himself in January, moved in with my sister in February and was one of the main reasons that her and her husband ended up splitting up because of his unreasonable behaviour and constant alcohol abuse. He found out in March that his ex wife was going to jail and that he would be 'lumbered with the kid' and then in May disappeared.

His daughter managed to get a hold of his mobile phone number from a drinking buddy and when he answered and heard her voice he hung up. That was the last time any of my family has had contact with him. My mum takes it personally because he blamed her along with everybody else for his problems and it is having a detrimental effect on her health. Honestly I hope he turns up one day for her sake but if I don't see him before she passes away I hope he stays missing forever. No matter how bad your life is you need to realise that your actions affect others around you. You can't run away from your problems.
S, Edinburgh

What do you do in the meantime though, while 'missing'? How do they keep themselves, find somewhere to live etc. Even living under the arches - as it were - takes benefits and claiming benefits needs an identity. It is very strange how they manage to survive either living off the grid or stealing an identity, especially if they are mentally ill.
Jill, East Yorkshire

My son walked out of our home 18 years ago having argued with his father over the 'poll tax' we had no idea were he was although there were several sightings. It was four months before he appeared again, havng got himself a small flat. He had no idea of the stress this caused and even now it upsets me to think of those missing months. It rates as one of the worst times of my life.
Sue Spring, West Midlands

Working regularly until 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning? That's ridiculous - no one can keep that up - no wonder the man went Awol. No one should be required to work those sort of hours.
Alan Trowbridge, Dorchester

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