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 abuse, 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.
PFS and SPF in Hawai'i: Assessment
The Partnerships for Success (PFS) Projects follow the SPF process. Assessment is the first task of the coalitions and counties receiving the current PFS contracts. The PFS projects build on the previous efforts of the Hawaiʻi SPF-SIG. The Hawai'i SPF-SIG project also began with an assessment of substance abuse-related data and needs in the state and the community resources available to address those needs.
The State Epidemiological Outcomes Workgroup (SEOW) helps to facilitate sharing of data and compiling epidemiological profiles of substance abuse and underage drinking for the state and for each county. These profiles indicated the rates of different substance-related behaviors and the extent of the problem among different age groups. After reviewing the information they had collected to assess substance abuse problems in Hawai'i, the SPF-SIG team chose to focus on the target goal of reducing and preventing underage alcohol use among youth aged 12-17 years old as the main aim of the project.
To allow for ongoing assessments of youth substance abuse issues, the SPF-SIG project also adapted an already existing statewide student health survey, the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), so that it could collect data related to underage drinking. As of 2017, this data is now collected at the county level every two years.