What to do if you have lost a loved one in the US: useful contacts and resources

The thought of missing a family member, friend, or someone else you care about can be frightening. You don't know where they are, maybe they are injured or they need help. When that person is living with a mental illness, things get even more complicated. Quick action can be important, says NAMI.

What what to do if you have lost a loved one in the US: useful contacts and resources

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Contact the police immediately

Give the police information about where your loved one went missing. If he remains missing for more than three days, ask the police to list him on the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC) list as an “adult at risk of extinction.” This computer network provides information throughout the country.

If you make it clear to the police that it is a mental health issue, they may shorten the number of days it takes for a person to be declared missing. The network will provide you with a police number that you can use when searching for a loved one. Be sure to write down the application number so that it can be easily tracked.

When a missing person with a mental illness over 21 is found, the police or other authorities do not have the right to detain him or her against his will, unless he or she have committed crimes and do not pose a danger to themselves or others.

No one has the right to force a person to seek help or medical care against their will, unless there is medical guardianship or a court order that specifies what action to take. However, you can still ask the police to tell you if they have found your loved one, even if they refuse to contact you.

Contact friends and acquaintances of the missing person

Call other people close to you and ask when they last saw the missing person. Reach out to anyone who has had regular or recent contact with the missing person, such as colleagues, doctors, and neighbors.

Register them in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs)

Go to www.findthemissing.org and upload information about your loved one. This powerful resource will help you, law enforcement, medical examiners and other members of the judicial community enter the details of a missing person. You must provide details such as a description of his appearance and the location where he was last seen.

Check nearby hospitals, churches, homeless shelters, and libraries.
Be aware that some of the these places may have privacy restrictions and you won't be able to find out if your loved one is there.

Print a one-page flyer

What to do if you have lost a loved one in the US: useful contacts and resources

Photo: Shutterstock

Create a missing person poster using designs available online. Save the poster as a pdf that you can use online or print. Your poster should include:

  • two recent photographs;
  • name;
  • hometown plus state;
  • height, weight, age;
  • license plate and photo of the car;
  • place where it was last seen;
  • telephone number of the police department or investigator.
Check social networks or create a website

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other accounts of your loved one can provide clues that may will tell you where the person is. Look also at the accounts of his friends in social networks. Create a Facebook page or website for the missing person.

  • For a website, use headlines like “Find John Doe” or “Missing Jane Smith.” This will help raise your page in Google search. Names such as “PleaseHelpFindJane” or “MissingMySonJohn” will also convey a message, but may not be included in a large number of search results.
  • Post a recent image and specific information about your loved one, including clothing you have seen on him for the last time, a description of his appearance, age and information about glasses, tattoos, etc. Where he was last seen and where he likes to spend time.
  • Download your missing person poster in PDF format so it can be easily printed and shared.
  • Reporting that your loved one has a mental illness should be handled with care. You can simply say that he or she is vulnerable and under medical supervision.
  • Include a story about a loved one and additional photos that will be interesting and understandable to others.
  • Upload a video of yourself to YouTube or Facebook and make a video appeal.
  • Ask people to contact the police department investigating.
  • Contact your NAMI affiliate or government agency.
    Your NAMI partner may be aware of local resources and places to find your loved ones. They can also help you post flyers and conduct searches.
Alert local media

If the local media makes a public announcement, the missing person may see the notification and decide to return home. This publicity may also encourage the police and others to devote more resources to solving the case. However, be aware that the media is not guaranteed to cover your story.

What should I do if my child is missing or ran away?

You should call the local police immediately. Provide them with a detailed physical description, including what clothes they were wearing and where and when they were last seen. Federal law prohibits police from setting a waiting period before searching for a missing child.

Within two hours of receiving a missing child report, police must add information to the FBI National Crime Information Center's missing persons file.

Federal and state governments, law enforcement agencies and organizations provide special resources and services to help find missing children or teenagers.

If your child is between 18 and 20 years old and is legally considered an adult but has a mental illness, the Suzanne Act (a PROTECT Act 2003 provision) requires the police to use the same efforts and resources as they would to find a child younger than Age 18.

You should then call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (CMEC) at 1-800-843-5678. CMEC will provide technical and case management assistance to ensure that all available search methods are used.

All missing person search tips and suggestions apply to people of all ages, so we recommend using these strategies as well.

Resources for Finding Missing Children

Center for Missing and Exploited Children
24-hour hotline
1-800 -843-5678

Lost people
24-hour hotline

National escape line