Data Key Area 2:


Gathering Information on Community Context

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

In addition to gathering data from existing community data systems, it is important to look at data based on your community’s unique context. This type of data includes your specific environment, cultures, beliefs, resources, readiness, and situation. All these aspects help illustrate your suicide prevention needs, gaps, and strengths. They can also provide information that helps you understand the suicide data from your community data systems.

A common way of gathering information on community context is by doing a community needs assessment (CNA). A CNA identifies the greatest needs related to a given topic, such as suicide prevention. CNAs are particularly important because they can help confirm people’s ideas about what the community needs are or point out where they might not have a full picture. By giving a clear understanding of community needs, CNAs provide a foundation for interpreting the data. CNAs are essential to building your strategic planning efforts by using data to guide which programs, practices, and policies to put in place.

Within the context of suicide prevention, CNAs can:

  • Uncover important cultural information on how the problem of suicide is perceived across the community
  • Reveal needs, gaps, and strengths in community suicide prevention-related services and programs
  • Identify community resources available to address needs, gaps, and strengths
  • Show the existing level of community readiness for addressing the problem of suicide
  • Indicate additional areas of need
  • Identify unique considerations for specific groups within the community

A CNA can help you understand how perceptions of suicide, needs, strengths, resources, and services may vary depending on different characteristics:

  • Age
  • Cultural and linguistic background
  • Religion
  • Sexual orientation and gender identity
  • Disability status

Key Steps

Assess capacity to gather and analyze information

Assess your coalition’s capacity to gather and analyze information on community context. Engaging in data collection will take both time and investment from your coalition members. Ask members what resources, skills, and knowledge they can invest in gathering community information, as well as what timeline is feasible for gathering the data.

If members have limited ability to invest in needs assessment activities, you will likely want to use a more informal approach to gathering information on community context, such as hosting conversations with community members. For example, you could schedule meetings where different representatives from the community are engaged in informal discussions on their perceptions of the issue of suicide. You likely would not be able to create a formal report from this effort, but it would still provide valuable information on the community context. If you take this approach, skip to Data Key Area 3: Using Data to Assess Progress and Make Changes.

However, if members have the capacity and time to invest in needs assessment activities, a more formal approach will strengthen your ability to gather information on community context. Proceed to Step 2.

Form a CNA work group

Based on data trends, patterns, and demographic groups with increased risk, form a CNA work group made up of partners representing different locations, populations, and kinds of organizations within the community. This work group can have the same or different members from your data subcommittee, but it will ideally include members who represent both data systems and community service providers. It does not have to be large, but it should have members with multiple, key perspectives and diverse demographics that can inform the CNA data collection, analysis, and interpretation.

For example, the work group may include your suicide prevention coalition chair, public health representative, and several nonprofits representing various parts of the community. It could also include interested individuals and members from local schools, faith communities, and businesses.

For additional information on forming workgroups, visit Unity, Key Area 2: Working with Coalitions and Advisory Groups.

Identify any CNAs already occurring

Identify any CNAs that are already occurring in your community. Members of your CNA work group can provide direct insight into the already existing CNA efforts of their organizations and/or valuable connections to individuals in the community already doing this work.

Many communities have surveys that measure K–12 or college student health and wellness. Public health departments are required to conduct needs assessments every five years. Health and wellness coalitions often conduct community conversations, town halls, or focus groups to assess community needs. These community organizations may be willing to share the results of their existing suicide-related questions. To get started identifying existing community needs assessments, you can do the following:

  • Complete an Internet search of health and wellness coalitions in your community
  • Reach out to local public health department(s) via website directories
  • Ask your suicide prevention coalition partners if they know of a needs assessment that has been done recently
  • Ask local colleges or universities if they may have students who are conducting or have conducted any CNAs
Determine if you need to gather more information

Determine whether existing CNAs provide enough information on suicide prevention or whether you need to gather more. Although some existing CNAs ask direct questions related to suicide, others may not. However, most existing CNAs are likely to ask questions that are related to risk and protective factors for suicide.

If you need more information than the CNAs provide, try to build relationships with the organizations hosting those CNAs and collaborate with them on including suicide prevention-related questions in the future. The best organizations and needs assessment to connect with will vary from one community to another. Consider working with people with whom you have strong relationships and the organizations that most frequently conduct community surveys or conversations.

You may, however, find that conducting your own CNA makes the most sense. Examples of situations when that may be best include:

  • There are no upcoming CNA surveys being developed or released in your community (e.g., the next local public health department CNA will not be for another four years).
  • The populations, settings, or communities represented in existing CNAs do not sufficiently include populations your community has identified as at high risk for suicide.
  • Organizations overseeing existing CNAs are not willing to include suicide prevention questions in their efforts.

If you determine the best step is to collaborate with existing CNAs, do Steps 5 and 8 below.

For additional guidance on identifying whether existing CNAs have enough suicide-related information for your purposes, use “Worksheet 3 – Evaluating Existing CNAs,” in Assessing Community Suicide Prevention Needs: A Workbook for State Coordinators.

Coordinate with partnering agencies

Coordinate with partnering agencies to identify what suicide-related information you will gather from the CNAs:

  • Identify the questions from existing CNAs your work group wants to use, particularly any questions related to risk and protective factors for suicide.
  • Add any additional questions specific to suicide that will help inform your understanding of community suicide prevention needs.
  • Then skip to Step 8 below.

If you determine it is best is to create your own CNA, do Steps 6–8 below.

Identify how to collect data

Identify how you will collect data on suicide prevention needs. Multiple methods may be used to engage community members in CNAs. For information about different approaches, see Data 3, Step 4: Decide on your data collection method(s).

When deciding which data collection methods to use, keep in mind their fit with communities who will respond. Also think about the feasibility of the data collection methods in terms of your group’s resources, funding, skills, and capacity. Worksheets 4 and 5 in Assessing Community Suicide Prevention Needs: A Workbook for State Coordinators can guide you through these and other key considerations for planning a CNA.

Draft CNA questions and gather information

Draft CNA questions and use the identified method(s) to gather information on the questions. The populations, geographic areas, and settings you identified as most at risk of suicide in your initial data collection and analysis should inform the questions you include in your CNA.

For example, if you have identified Black youth and White middle-aged adults as most at risk of suicide in your community, include CNA questions that specifically ask community members what they believe is contributing to the suicide risk in both Black youth and White middle-aged adults and what resources are available in the community to support them.

As you develop CNA questions, make sure the questions will help you gather information on the following:

  • What are the community’s most significant risk and protective factors for suicide, particularly in populations with high rates of suicide deaths and attempts?
  • What cultural factors influence the different populations’ experiences with suicide?
  • What resources are available to the community to help address the issue of suicide?
  • How ready is the community to engage in suicide prevention efforts? (See Fit Key Area 1: Assessing Community Readiness)

You will use the same principles to draft CNA questions as you would to conduct formal research. The resource Formulating Your Research Question can help you create strong CNA questions. Consider whether you need to offer CNA questions in different formats, languages, and cultural adaptations to effectively learn about the diverse populations in your community. See Cross-Cultural Survey Guidelines for guidance on adapting assessment questions.

Analyze the CNA results

Your CNA work group can partner with your data subcommittee members and other data partners to analyze the CNA results. Your results should help you determine the risk and protective factors, community context, and resources that will be key to addressing suicide. They can support your efforts to identify trends in the data, including identifying themes in participants’ open-ended responses and community discussions. You will include your CNA results in your  movement through CLSP’s Planning element.

Also include your CNA results in the Strategic Planning Worksheet by revisiting your response in Section 1, Row 2 if needed, as well as in Section 1, Rows 5 and 6.

If you partnered with an agency already conducting a CNA, they likely already plan to create a formal CNA report. Work with these partners to either (a) find the suicide-related information you are looking for in their final report or (b) ask them to share data you can use to create your own suicide-specific needs assessment report for your internal planning purposes.

If you created your own CNA, it is helpful to write a formal CNA report that describes your key findings. Include your answers to the questions listed in Step 7 and any identified gaps in your community’s data and resources. Link your CNA findings with related information from data systems.

For example, if the state youth risk behavior survey data showed that youth had increasing suicide attempt rates in the last five years, describe this trend in the report. Alongside this, include information on the risk, protective, and cultural factors your CNA identified as important context.

A template with key sections to include in a CNA report is available here from the U.S. Department of Justice.