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Unconfirmed death as a predictor of psychological morbidity in family members of disappeared persons

  • Amila Isuru (a1), S. N. Hewage (a2), Padmakumara Bandumithra (a3) and S. S. Williams (a4)



The 2004 tsunami, the civil conflict until 2009 and the youth insurrection in the late 1980s in Sri Lanka resulted in many persons being classified as ‘missing’ as they disappeared and were unaccounted for. Our aim was to compare the prevalence of major depressive disorder (MDD) and prolonged grief disorder (PGD) in families of disappeared individuals, who eventually received the mortal remains and those who did not.


An ethically approved cross sectional study was conducted in a purposively selected sample after informed consent. Information on the circumstances of the family member going missing was gathered. Culturally adapted versions of the General Health Questionnaire and the Beck Depression Scale were administered. Those who screened positive were assessed by a psychiatrist on Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5 criteria to arrive at a diagnosis.


Of 391 cases of disappearances studied, MDD (17.5% v. 6%) and PGD (22% v. 7%) were significantly higher in those who did not eventually receive the mortal remains of the disappeared person. Among those who did not receive the mortal remains, being unsure whether the disappeared person was dead or alive was highly predictive of MDD and PGD. Mothers and wives, older family members and those with a family history of mental illness were more vulnerable.


Family members of missing individuals unsure whether their loved one was alive or dead have higher psychological morbidity in the form of MDD and PGD.


Corresponding author

Author for correspondence: Amila Isuru,


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