Start with What You Know: Using Data for Suicide Prevention

December 01, 2017

News Type:  Director's Corner
Author:  Elly Stout, MS, SPRC Director, Education Development Center, Inc.

As we approach the 18th anniversary of the first National Strategy for Suicide Prevention, that document’s strategic direction on data and surveillance is moving to center stage in our field. From the new national goal of a 20 percent reduction in the suicide rate by 2025, to state and community efforts to make an impact, we are collectively recognizing that data is key in developing effective programs, measuring success, and showing that suicide is, in fact, preventable. As a field, we are making significant strides in improving access to data and using it to inform our prevention efforts, with innovative work happening from the national level to local communities.

Successful prevention efforts start with data. The first step is to ask what we know about the problem: Who is most at risk? What are the factors associated with risk? What factors appear to be protective? What efforts and resources are already in place? What is the community’s level of readiness to engage in prevention? Data can provide the answers to these questions, which in turn help us develop prevention programs that are more likely to be effective. Without data, we are not able to target limited prevention resources to help those most affected.

In the suicide prevention field, our access to data has grown significantly in recent years. With the expansion of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Violent Death Reporting System and the efforts of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention’s (Action Alliance) Data and Surveillance Task Force, we’ve received broader and timelier access to key national data sources. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has encouraged their suicide prevention grantees to build state, tribal, and local surveillance systems as an integral part of the suicide prevention infrastructure. And national groups continue to look into how to make other national data systems, such as the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project, more complete and easily accessible to state and local prevention groups.

Prevention programs at the state, tribal, and local levels have also come up with innovative ways to find information on suicide deaths and attempts in their communities, which often have a very different profile from national data. Examples include tribally mandated surveillance systems engaging the entire community; health systems partnering with local medical examiners to track patient deaths; and state suicide death review teams. These approaches allow communities to collect information that helps them craft more successful prevention efforts.

SPRC’s Surveillance Success Stories highlight some of the unique ways that states and communities have been able to gather meaningful data for suicide prevention. Our free online courses on finding and using data and the strategic planning approach to suicide prevention can help you find suicide-related information and show you how to use it. And SPRC will soon be releasing two new reports that outline challenges and strategies for tracking suicide data in youth-serving state systems and American Indian/Alaska Native communities.

I hope you’ll make use of these and other resources to find out more about suicidal behaviors in your community or setting. At this time in our field, when momentum for suicide prevention persists in the face of rising suicide rates, we need to start any suicide prevention initiative with what we know. Using data can help ensure that our efforts are as effective as possible, so we can show that suicide is preventable, and reach our shared national goal of reducing the suicide rate 20 percent by 2025.