How our program evaluations support better mental health outcomes

How our program evaluations support better mental health outcomes
Oct 10, 2022
We’re developing an evidence base for what works in a comprehensive youth suicide prevention program to help ensure that resources and supports are available in communities across the U.S.

Youth mental health and youth suicide have been important areas of public health focus for some time. Rates of sadness and suicidal thoughts among children and adolescents have increased over the last decade. And some multicultural groups, including Black and American Indian youth, remain at disproportionate risk for suicide.

Then came COVID-19, along with the social isolation, anxiety, grief, economic struggles, family disruptions, and increased substance abuse that resulted from the pandemic. And the exacerbated difficulties in accessing and maintaining mental health support, particularly among communities of color.

Robin Davis

Research scientist Robin Davis believes that with heightened awareness and attention, there’s an opportunity for increased readiness and engagement to address youth suicide and its underlying causes. Robin shares, “I wish there was more general awareness about the prevalence of youth suicide. In the U.S., it’s the second leading cause of death among young people (ages 10-14 and 25-34 years old) and the third leading cause for those ages 14-21 years old.”

Fewer suicides and suicide attempts

We’ve been actively engaged in the public health conversation on youth mental health and youth suicide since 2005, when we first started as an independent evaluator of the Garrett Lee Smith Youth Suicide Prevention Program for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Our National Outcome Evaluation has led to multiple peer-reviewed publications, demonstrating that counties implementing the program experienced significantly fewer youth suicides and suicide attempts, evidence for continued program support.

Christine Walrath

"Prematurely assessing youth suicide outcomes without understanding the context, nature, and process of a program—who was being reached, what interventions and activities were being delivered and how—is not an option. To understand outcomes, there first needs to be an understanding of process. Our evaluation has evolved along with the program—from an earlier focus on context and process to a later focus on outcome and impact,” explains Christine Walrath, chief science officer for public and behavioral health research and evaluation.

Diverse perspectives and a data-driven approach

The mental health and wellness of young people is both fundamental and essential to world resilience and prosperity. Through the National Outcome Evaluation, one of many examples of our purpose-driven work, we’re providing SAMHSA with essential information to hone, sustain, and expand their program. And ensuring that youth suicide prevention resources and support is available in communities across the country.

“We’re intentional about bringing diverse experiences, perspectives, and expertise to address complex behavioral health issues, including youth suicide prevention. Our expertise and lived experiences, ensure our approaches—whether they encompass evaluation, research, analysis, communication, dissemination, or training and technical assistance—are informed by evidence and delivered in partnership with communities,” Robin explains.

Collecting data in diverse communities, assessing outcomes, and understanding impact in real-world settings, all while programs are being delivered, can be challenging. We bring hands-on user-driven training and technical assistance, the best applied scientific approaches to determine impact, technology-enabled data collection solutions, advanced analytics, and the translation of results for multiple audiences

“Data-driven decision-making and evidence-informed programs help ensure that the most effective interventions are accessible to the populations for whom they make the most difference. Data is powerful and helping to improve systems, policies, and wellbeing through program evaluation is inspiring.”

Christine Walrath

Working in the field of suicide prevention, and partnering with SAMHSA to support communities, populations, and people in mental health crisis has helped Christine better understand her own family situation where her cousin died by suicide, connect loved ones to accurate information and resources, and, most importantly, know that suicide prevention makes a difference for families everywhere.\“Mental health problems are not a sign of weakness and suicide is preventable. Being able to recognize a friend or family member in distress and connect them to resources is life-changing and lifesaving.”

She reminds us that crisis support services can be accessed by calling 988 to connect with the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

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