Thousands of mentally ill people vanish every year, barely noticed except by families and friends
Lorne Boulet Jr.'s disappearance came without warning. The childlike, schizophrenic man left his New Hampshire home for a walk one summer afternoon more than four years ago and simply never returned.
James Rowe veered between giddiness and sobs in his last phone conversation with his sister as he described the way a July 2004 conference on personal growth had changed him. Over the next few days, the Colorado restaurant owner abandoned his vehicle, shaved his head, and walked into the woods -- and his family hasn't heard from him since.
Michael Hogan, a shy man with obsessive compulsive disorder, left his job in Vermont one day, saying he needed to be alone. Eight months later, his mother is still so convinced he will call that she's left this message on her answering machine: ''Michael, if this is you, please let me know how I can contact you. . . . I miss you so much."
Boulet, Rowe, and Hogan are among thousands of mentally ill men and women who disappear each year -- barely noticed outside of their families and a clutch of organizations devoted to keeping their hopes alive. Their advocates believe that most of the 8,000 missing adults listed by the FBI as ''endangered" or ''disabled" suffer from some kind of mental illness and may have experienced a psychological break with reality that prompts them to abandon their former lives or attempt suicide.
The missing tend to be men, and their mental health problems run the gamut from sudden breakdowns in the face of adversity to chronic illnesses such as schizophrenia, which can cause delusions or feelings of paranoia. Bipolar disorder, which causes wide mood swings, also accounts for some of the disappearances; its victims follow unpredictable impulses.
''Usually there is some sort of inner logic" when people with mental illness flee, ''even though it seems strange to other people," said Dr. Dost Ongur, director of the schizophrenia and bipolar disorder program at McLean Hospital. ''They might say they need to enroll in the armed services because they really need to go to Iraq to help America when everybody else says, 'You're 65 and you've got a bad back. It doesn't sound like a good idea.' "
The disappearance of an adult -- especially a man -- doesn't usually trigger the intensive communitywide searches that law enforcement agencies launch for missing children. Their disappearance doesn't automatically stir fears of foul play, so police are sometimes slow to investigate thoroughly. And adults can legally leave their lives behind, even if they are not thinking clearly.
''An adult has the right to be missing," said Roy Weise, senior adviser at the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services, which maintains the national list of missing people. ''The wife may think he's missing, but he may be right where he wants to be." Hospitals and homeless shelters, which often house mentally ill people, are caught in a bind, too, needing to protect clients' privacy when desperate loved ones inquire about them. ''If a family member calls me up and says, 'I'm looking for my brother,' we will get a message to that person," said John Yazwinski of Father Bill's Place homeless shelter in Quincy. But, he adds, it's up to the shelter resident whether to respond.
As a result, family members can feel like they're carrying out the search by themselves, circulating ''missing" flyers, maintaining websites, raising reward money, and passing along tips to law enforcement officials.
Louise Holmburg of Bristol, N.H., has turned her van into a traveling billboard about her nephew Boulet, complete with his picture on the side and an e-mail address (email@example.com) for tips. She said people often assume that because Boulet is 25 and weighs more than 200 pounds, he can take care of himself, but ''he's a kid at heart. . . . My best guess would be that his mind got the best of him and he walked away."
Holmburg, like other relatives of missing people with mental illness, is bitter at the lack of public interest compared with the intense focus on sensational cases like ''runaway bride" Jennifer Wilbanks, who initially claimed she had been abducted before admitting she fled because of anxiety about her wedding.
Officials at Project Jason, a Nebraska organization that spotlights missing people, said the media have covered only one of their last seven press releases about a missing adult, most of whom have mental illness.
Once mentally ill people leave their home area, advocates say, they're unlikely to be located unless police stop them by chance and run their name through the FBI's National Criminal Information Center, which has a list of missing people that is available only to law enforcement agencies.
The private National Center for Missing Adults maintains the most extensive publicly available list (www.theyaremissed.org), but its site includes only about 1,173 names, and only a fraction of those are mentally ill.
''Not only is it like looking for a needle in a haystack, but there's a million haystacks and you're blindfolded," said Kelly Jolkowski, founder of Project Jason (www.projectjason.org), named after her 19-year-old son, who did not have a history of mental illness but disappeared from his Nebraska driveway in 2001. ''There really aren't a lot of resources for missing adults."
Many families get discouraged about the lack of progress -- and even interest -- in finding their loved one. People who have been diagnosed with mental illness are likely to be off their medications, making them more unpredictable as the weeks drag on -- and more likely to hurt themselves. Up to 40 percent of people with schizophrenia attempt suicide at some point, and people with major mental illnesses are more likely to abuse drugs, putting their safety further at risk.
James Bowman of Kiamesha Lake, N.Y., suspects that his son is dead, a year and a half after he left their home in the middle of the night. Patrick Bowman, who would now be 47, suffers from bipolar disorder, which subjected him to wide and unpredictable mood swings, his father said, a problem made worse by a cocaine addiction.
''Whatever happened to him is limited only by your imagination," said the elder Bowman. ''The only thing I want is that he's not suffering."
FBI officials said the situation for families is far from hopeless. Law enforcement agencies check their database 5 million times daily, including for routine background checks of people stopped for traffic violations. Agency officials estimate that police checks of the FBI list helped in the recovery of 50,000 missing adults and children last year, though only a small fraction of that number were mentally ill adults.
Police say they take the disappearance of adults very seriously when there are doubts about the person's safety. For instance, Corpus Christi, Texas, police conducted helicopter searches of a remote beach last month where a depressed man abandoned his car after leaving a suicide note. Samuel Young Chong had dropped out of college without telling his parents, who apparently triggered Chong's disappearance when they came for what they believed would be his graduation.
Mike Walsh, commander of criminal investigations for the Corpus Christi police, said, ''We were expecting, based on the rhetoric, that we were going to find a body. Instead, police ultimately traced Chong to Los Angeles, allowing a relative to find him at an Internet cafe there and persuade him to return home.
But for every missing person like Chong, whose case has a happy ending, there are many more like Michael Jarvi of Naselle, Wash., a man with schizophrenia last seen before he abandoned his Ford Escort in an Oregon trailer park in March 2002. His parents received word from a DVD club recently that Jarvi's membership has been paid through April 2005, suggesting that he's still alive, but most of the other supposed tips have gone nowhere.
''How do you even guess where he is?" said Jarvi's father, James Jarvi. ''Every day you think about it, but you've just got to hope for the best."
Scott Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.