Step 1: Describe the Problem and Its Context

 

Step 1 of the strategic planning process is to describe the problem and its context. That means being able to answer questions, such as: 

  • Who is dying by suicide, attempting suicide, and having thoughts of suicide (e.g., age, sex, race, ethnicity)? 
  • What risk and protective factors are associated with suicide?
  • What methods are people using most often? 
  • Under what circumstances do suicide deaths and attempts occur?
  • What community resources are used to identify and assist people at risk for suicide and promote mental health and well-being?

With a solid understanding of suicide in your state or community, you will be able to determine targeted and evidence-based responses. This information can also help you make the case to stakeholders that prevention efforts are needed.

How to Gather Data

There are several ways of gathering information to better understand and describe the suicide issue in your state or community: 

  • Look at data on suicide 
  • Review research on suicidal behaviors and how to prevent them 
  • Talk with people in your state or community

The following sections focus on identifying national, state, and local data sources related to suicide. To learn about other ways to gather information on suicide, visit SPRC’s online course A Strategic Planning Approach to Suicide Prevention.

Data Related to Suicide Prevention

Examples of data related to suicide include:

Suicide Deaths

A suicide is a “death caused by self-directed injurious behavior with any intent to die as a result of the behavior.”1  In other words, suicide is a death resulting from an action taken by a person with the intent or reasonable expectation that the action will result in his or her death.

Suicide Attempts

A suicide attempt is “a non-fatal, self-directed potentially injurious behavior with any intent to die as a result of the behavior.”2 In other words, a suicide attempt is an action taken by a person with the intent (or expectation) that it will result in his or her death, but it does not.

Suicidal Ideation

Suicidal ideation is defined as “thoughts about engaging in suicide-related behavior.”3 Ideation can range from a vague wish to die to actively making a suicide plan and acquiring the means to take one’s own life.

Risk and Protective Factors for Suicide

Risk factors are personal or environmental characteristics that are associated with an increase in suicidal behavior. Protective factors are personal or environmental characteristics that help protect people from suicidal behavior.

 

The tool below can be used to determine where you might find the data you need. In this tool, you will be asked to answer questions about a variety of parameters, including the type of data you need, whether you need information on youth or adults, and whether you need information at the national, state, or local level. Based on your answers to these questions, the tool will generate suggested data sources.

    Sources of Data

    There are a variety of national and state data sources that can be used to gather information on suicide and its context. Some common sources are listed below. This list is not comprehensive; additional data sources are available at the national, state, and local level. When data are not available, or seem incomplete, you can supplement with additional data sources like archival data, key informant interviews, focus groups, or surveys. 

    National Data Sources

    Following are some common sources of data on suicide deaths and attempts, suicidal ideation, and risk and protective factors:

    • CDC’s Web-Based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) Fatal Injury Data
    • CDC’s National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS)
    • CDC’s Wide-Ranging Online Data for Epidemiologic Research (WONDER)
    • SAMHSA’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)
    • CDC’s WISQARS Nonfatal Injury Data
    • CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS)

    State and Local Data Sources

    State and local data sources are also important for planning. Sources of data on suicide deaths and attempts, suicidal ideation, and risk and protective factors may include:

    • State and local health departments
    • Medical examiner’s or coroner’s offices
    • Health systems and hospitals
    • Schools, including higher education
    • Courts and the justice system
    • Substance abuse treatment facilities
    • Community coalitions and task forces (e.g., substance abuse prevention workgroup)
    • Child death review teams
    • Law enforcement agencies
    • Emergency medical services and ambulance companies
    • Organizations that serve specific populations (e.g., veterans, people who identify as a gender or sexual minority, American Indians or Alaska Natives)

    Getting Help for Your Data-Related Needs

    Whether you are trying to understand suicidal behavior and its context or you are working to evaluate your suicide prevention efforts, gathering and interpreting data is complicated. Specialized training is often required to do it properly. You may need to engage someone with specialized training to help you.

    The following places may be able to help:

    • Local universities, where graduate students are often looking for data-related work for their training 
    • State and local health departments, which often have epidemiologists who can help professionals understand and work with data
    • Members of professional organizations, like the American Evaluation Association, the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, and the American Public Health Association
    • Tribal Epidemiology Centers, which provide assistance related to data needs to Indian tribes, tribal organizations, and urban Indian organizations

     

    References

    1. Crosby, A. E., Ortega, L., & Melanson, C. (2011). Self-directed violence surveillance: Uniform definitions and recommended data elements, Version 1.0. Atlanta (GA): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/self-directed-violence-a.pdf
    2. Crosby, Ortega, & Melanson, Self-directed violence surveillance.
    3. Crosby, Ortega, & Melanson, Self-directed violence surveillance.