When trying to address problems in our communities, it is important that we begin by attempting to get a full understanding of the problem. If we start to design solutions without this full understanding, then we run the risk of missing something important or developing ineffective strategies for change. In the Strategic Prevention Framework (SPF) model, this first step, in which communities attempt to fully understand a target problem, is called "assessment" or "needs assessment."
During this stage, staff and community members systematically gather information about the target problem. For instance, it is good to try to understand how many people in the community experience the problem, what factors might indicate a higher risk for developing the problem, and whether the problem is a symptom of some larger issue that also needs to be addressed.
Other things that are important to consider when trying to understand community problems are:
- Frequency: How often does the problem occur?
- Duration: How long has the problem lasted?
- Scope: How widespread is the problem?
- Severity: How much does the problem impact the functioning of individuals, families, and communities?
- Equity: Does the problem impact some groups more than others? Does it represent an issue of inequality or injustice in a community?
- Perception: Does the community see the issue as a problem? Do the different parts of a community agree on the definition of the problem?
In addition to gathering information about the magnitude of the problem and its potential causes, a needs assessment also attempts to gather information about how a community might be able to best address the problem. What tools already exist in the community and how might they be used to address the issue? What additional tools are needed to address the problem? Who should to be included in a collaboration to address the problem?
Often social problems, such as substance misuse, are very complicated issues to address because they are influenced by so many different factors. These factors include individual choices and behaviors, family interactions, school and peer influences, community norms and practices, and public laws and policies (among others). Because these problems impact whole communities and because whole communities can have an impact on these problems, it is often important for many different sectors within a community to collaborate together in their attempts to address the problem.
Exploring about how a community perceives the problem is, therefore, often very important. The SPF process emphasizes the need for the community as a whole to engage in the systematic assessment process. This means bringing together researchers, policymakers, program providers, and community members to collaborate together in order to gather information about the problem. In this way a community can develop a shared definition of the problem, a unified understanding of the important factors that impact the problem, and can then develop a comprehensive plan to address the problem as a team.