Data Key Area 1:


Accessing Systems Data for Planning

If you are interested in more in-depth information, click on the links provided throughout this key area.

The systems that collect data on public health problems, such as suicide, continuously and in an organized way are called surveillance systems. They may be housed in a wide range of agencies in the community.

Which data should you use to guide your community’s suicide prevention efforts? Ideally, you will be able to get data on suicide-related behaviors (deaths, attempts, thoughts of suicide) as well as broader data about risk and protective factors related to suicide. It is equally important to track demographic data that will help you understand who is most impacted by suicide in your community. Some data sources can help you understand suicide circumstances or may point to a suicide cluster or a suicide “hot spot” (place where many people have died). Common sources of data that are used to inform suicide prevention are listed in Step 2 below.

What Are Risk and Protective Factors?

  • Risk factors are personal or environmental characteristics that may increase the risk for suicide. They exist within individuals or relationships or are influenced by community or societal structures and cultures.
  • Protective factors are personal or environmental characteristics that may decrease the risk for suicide. They also exist within individuals or relationships or are influenced by community or societal structures and cultures.

Key Steps

Ensure coalition can access and use quality data

Ensure that the suicide prevention coalition or working group you set up in the Unity element has the ability to collect, analyze, and interpret data. If members of your group do not have these skills, invite individuals with data expertise to participate in your suicide prevention coalition or related group. These individuals might include department of health data analysts, community college professors, epidemiologists, and statisticians. Individuals with data expertise will be essential to making sure data are interpreted and represented accurately.

  • Contact your local health department to see whether there is a data analyst who works on suicide prevention or similar topics, such as injury or violence prevention or mental health.
  • Look at the website for local college(s) to find relevant departments and contact the chair or head of the department. In particular, look at public health, psychology, behavioral sciences, or similar areas.
  • Ask your state suicide prevention coordinator if they know of anyone local who has this kind of expertise.

Do not only rely on experts to do the work, however. It is helpful for a variety of partners to be able to understand data. This requires the group to invest time in developing skills. Not all partners need to know how to collect data or run statistical tests. But all partners should develop skills in understanding, interpreting, and summarizing data. You will need partners who can convey the data’s meaning to their networks. Engage the local data experts you recruited to develop the skills of your broader group.

If appropriate/needed, share the free online course Locating and Understanding Data for Suicide Prevention with your local partners.

Make a list of the data systems

With the help of people who are familiar with data sources, identified in Step 1, make a list of the data systems that are available to your community. Local data often has gaps that state and national data may help fill in.

National data systems include public databases and reports that communities can access freely. Many states also provide interactive databases and reports. If you are not sure if your state provides suicide-related data, check with your state departments of public health and mental health.

Local-level data may be harder to get. This difficulty could be due to:

  • Preserving privacy when there are a small number of suicide deaths
  • The significant time it can take coroners or medical examiners to verify the causes of unexpected deaths
  • Limits in the systems that collect data
  • Limited number of local staff with the time, expertise, or availability to focus on suicide-related data

However, every community will have some local data on suicide or related risk and protective factors.

You may also be able to get data specific to suicide-related risk factors in the community from a broad range of agencies. Look at CDC’s list of risk and protective factors and brainstorm the types of organizations in your community that might have data related to those factors. These organizations may make some data publicly available. However, you may need to formally request some data from organizations. It is important to take time to establish relationships with organizations who maintain suicide-related data before asking them for access to non-public data. See the worksheet Making a Data Request.

The following list includes some common suicide risk factors that are useful to track within your data efforts. The items in parentheses are the strategies and approaches from CDC’s Suicide Prevention Resource for Action that can be used to address the risk factors listed.

  • Mental illness, self-harm, substance abuse disorder (Improve access and delivery of suicide care, create protective environments, identify and support people at risk, lessen harms and prevent future risk)
  • Serious physical illness (Improve access and delivery of suicide care)
  • Social isolation (Promote healthy connections, teach coping and problem-solving skills)
  • Financial problems, e.g., unemployment and home foreclosure (Strengthen economic supports)
  • Relationship and family problems, including violence and abuse (Teach coping and problem-solving skills, identify and support people at risk)
  • Lack of access to health and mental health care (Improve access and delivery of suicide care)
  • Access to lethal means (Reduce access to lethal means among persons at risk of suicide)
  • Stigma associated with mental illness and help-seeking (Promote healthy peer norms, Train gatekeepers, Report and message about suicide safely)
Form a data subcommittee or workgroup

After you have identified the key data sources in your community, recruit representatives from each data system (e.g., public health department, local hospital) to participate in your suicide prevention coalition.

It can be helpful to form a specific subcommittee or work group of the coalition that is focused on working with and interpreting data. This work group can be made up of people in the community with access to data and who have data-related skills (and other members as appropriate). It is also important to have members of the group be from populations that are at an increased risk for suicide.

Members of this work group can share the value and use of their data for suicide prevention (e.g., tracking and monitoring suicide, suicide attempts, risk factors) and prepare summaries and reports for the other suicide prevention partners.

For example, hospital administrative staff managing patient billing data and school administrators managing youth wellness survey data can be invited and provided access to statistics on patient and student suicide behavior trends over time. When you have strong representation on your data subcommittee, you will have increased ability to both access and use data consistently across partners and successfully submit data requests to participating organizations.

You may want to use the SPRC worksheet Researching Prospective Partners to make a list of who to invite and to record some background information to help you reach out to them.

Identify data to use

Identify the data from each source that you are going to use. It is important to look at data in multiple ways to understand the issue of suicide in a community. Different data sets will help you answer different questions. The following are four common ways of looking at data:

  • Count: Count is the total number of cases or events in a specific group during a specific time-period. Counts help you answer how many of something (e.g., attempts, deaths, or risk-factor exposures) are occurring.
  • Rate: Rate is the number of events (called numerator data) divided by the number of people in the population (called denominator data) during a given period or point in time (typically expressed as the number of cases per 1,000 or 100,000 people). Rates help you compare suicide-related numbers across populations. For example, in 2021, what percentage of Black/African American youth vs. Hispanic/Latino youth experienced thoughts of suicide?
  • Trend: A trend is how different events (e.g., suicides) change over time. Trends help you track whether rates decrease, increase, or remain stable over weeks, months, and years. For example, has the percentage of LGBTQ youth experiencing thoughts of suicide changed over the last five years?
  • Pattern: A pattern shows whether different factors are related to one another over a time period. Patterns help you identify if certain demographics, groups, or risk factors are consistently connected with a particular outcome, such as suicide attempts. For example, your medical examiner might examine autopsy records and find that over the past five years, those records showed 75% of people in your community who died by suicide had high blood alcohol levels. In this mock example, the data would demonstrate a pattern of alcohol use at the time of suicide.
Use data to prioritize groups and circumstances

As you collect count, rate, trend, and pattern data, note how these data vary across demographic groups. Some important demographic data to collect include age, sex, race/ethnicity, geography, occupation, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, and veteran status. Using demographic data will help your community note differences in suicide-related behaviors across groups. To learn more about why using demographic data is important and about differences in suicide-related behaviors across populations at a national scale, visit CDC’s Disparities in Suicide. However, note that your local community statistics may or may not mirror national data. Because of this, it is particularly important to collect local demographic and suicide data.

Once your work group identifies which data to use, combine it with any community needs assessment data you will gather in Data, Key Area 2. Your group will use this data throughout CLSP’s Planning element to prioritize the focus of your suicide prevention efforts.

A useful resource is our Strategic Planning Worksheet: list your priority groups and circumstances in Section 1, Row 1 (and Row 2, if applicable), and choose the reason for prioritizing each one in Row 4.
Stay regularly up to date on local data

With data in hand, have regularly scheduled suicide prevention data subcommittee meetings, during which each partner who works with data shares any changes they see in their local data. Group members would then compare information across data sources over time. Another option is to have quarterly or biannual coalition meetings where the data subcommittee shares data trends and patterns with the larger coalition. The subcommittee could also create summary reports of key data findings that are shared with the whole coalition periodically.

The goal of these efforts is to ensure that your data partners have the time set aside and mechanisms in place to discuss data among themselves and share it in an easy-to-understand way with other suicide prevention partners.