July 9, 2009 at 10:00 AM ET
(NOTE: This story originally appeared on July 9. Gregory Hillman was pronounced dead on July 11 after his parents identified a body found in a nearby river as their son. To read more, click here. Or, visit a Facebook page devoted to him.)
Gregory Hillman is an aspiring musician and architect, a former college student in Portland, Ore., and the third child in a family of four children from the beautiful Connecticut suburb of Darien. He also suffers from bipolar disorder and other mental health difficulties.
Now, he's missing.
Hillman managed to escape while being transferred from one mental health facility to another last week near North Adams, Mass., just days before he turned 21. He ran off into the woods and has not been seen since. Before the escape, he sent a suicide note to his sister and brother, saying he planned to drown himself in the Atlantic Ocean – leaving his family to fear they are in a race against time to find him.
In their frantic search to find Gregory, the family has turned to Facebook for help. The "Help Find Gregory Hillman," group quickly grew to more than 1,400 members. Hillman is still missing, but there are indications that he's still alive, his sister, Amanda Hillman, said Wednesday.
"I know that he suffers from pain and anguish that I couldn't comprehend," said Amanda, 25, who lives in Seattle. "I bet he's frightened and I want him to feel safe coming home."
Hillman's Facebook page may play an important role in the family's quest. They were able to guess at a few possible destinations for Gregory – Providence, Albany, southern Connecticut, New York City -- and used Facebook to contact friends and friends of friends in each area. But perhaps more important, the site is crammed with messages from friends recalling the soft-spoken young man with a kind heart, urging him to communicate with loved ones.
"Maddie and I are praying for you and spreading the word so you can be safe and sound,” said one. “I miss you man and I really hope that you will overcome this. Please come home safely. I love you bro."
Others seem emboldened by the unfolding drama to share their own stories of mental health battles.
"I'm not sure if my mom ever told you, but last year I was hospitalized for depression and suicide risk," wrote another friend. "All my failures had seemed to catch up to me and it felt as if my life was finally at its end. The thing is, it wasn't the end. I got better when I finally switched medication for almost the 10th time. The thing is, life does get better, even when it seems like you're stuck with the worst life has to offer. You just can't give up."
Increasingly, social networking sites like Facebook are playing an important role in missing persons and runaway cases. The power of the network effect, coupled with viral marketing, dwarfs the impact that old-fashioned "missing" posters could have.
Jennifer Di Nicola, manager for the National Runaway Switchboard, said she routinely coaches parents to turn to Facebook and similar sites when a child goes missing. For starters, she said, Facebook is the best way to reach friends and acquaintances when time is of the essence.
"It's access to a large group of people all at once. You can't beat that when trying to raise awareness," Di Nicola said.
But Facebook can help in numerous other ways, she said. Some runaways leave hints on their page with possible destinations, through wall posts or other comments left on the site. Facebook can also be used to track down friends that parents may not know about, and perhaps uncover a trusted third party who's in communication with the lost person, Di Nicola said. And Facebook is usually the best source for recent photographs that can be used to help find lost young adults.
"In one instance a volunteer told me about, parents were able to figure out where the youth was based on pictures posted to their Facebook page," she said. "At least they had peace of mind that the child was safe then."
'Happy Endings' on Facebook
Of course, savvy Facebook users who don't want to be discovered can cover their tracks. Still, Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt said the firm has been a part of numerous "happy endings" that reunited lost children and youth with their families. He declined to provide details, citing privacy concerns.
"We've found that runaways often will still check their profile and can be located by tracking their IP address," he said. Facebook often works with law enforcement agencies to fulfill such requests, he said.
There have been a couple of high-profile stories suggesting social networking can help bring lost loved ones home.
Earlier this year, a teenage Nepali ski racer was found in Paris after someone recognized his picture from a Facebook campaign, according to Reuters news service. The 17-year-old had wandered away from his team's base in the French Alps and was found two weeks later, hundreds of miles away. He was recognized after more than 400 people joined a Facebook group devoted to finding him.
And last year, Hannah Emily Upp, an elementary school teacher in New York, disappeared for several weeks after suffering a rare form of temporary amnesia. She was recognized while at an Apple store in Manhattan, in part thanks to a Facebook group named "We're Not Giving Upp (on Hannah)."
Attention can be a double-edged sword, however. Amanda worries that her brother might be spooked if he sees news coverage about him, which could make him be less inclined to step forward. Still, she thinks the volume of loving notes from friends that have appeared on the Facebook group might be the best method for getting her brother to come home.
"I want him to see the outpouring of love from friends and the community and know that we are not here to label him or judge him, we are here to help him and love him and let him work through difficulties," she said. "This is not just his sister and brothers and parents that are looking for him. He has touched a lot of lives."
The Help Find Gregory Hillman page can be viewed by clicking here.
Parents who are trying to locate missing children and young adults can call the National Runaway Switchboard at 1-800-Runaway. Operators offer advice and also provide message relay service, acting as intermediaries for children who are not yet ready or willing to speak directly to their parents.