Identifying Needs

A community needs assessment will help you gather information to use for program selection and planning. If you already have a sense of the overall objectives for your program and its likely target audience, make sure that the needs assessment looks at the issues you hope to address and the groups you intend to reach.

Your assessment will identify:

  • Current community conditions
  • Which individuals are affected by the issue
  • What resources are available to address the issue

Needs assessments also provide evidence you can share with stakeholders and information that can be used to seek support from funders.

Collaborating with other agencies and community groups can help determine what data already exists and what gaps need to be filled. You may also choose to collect and analyze additional data. Potential sources of mental health data include:

  • National and state databases and surveillance systems
    • Vital records, disease reporting, morbidity data
  • State and county records
    • Criminal justice system data from police and court records, child protective service records
    • County and district school records on school incidents and drop-out rates
    • County records on budgets, previous assessments and current program activities (surveys, questionnaires, or focus groups involving key stakeholders)
  • Healthcare settings and treatment facilities
    • Admission rates, screening tools, types of narcotics and level of use, and information regarding trends and health outcomes for the rural communities.
  • Existing literature on the specific mental health or substance abuse concern. Some examples of these journals, most of which are indexed in the freely available PubMed database -  -  include:
    • Community Mental Health Journal
    • American Journal of Psychiatry
    • Administration in Mental Health
    • Journal of Mental Health
    • Mental Health Digest

Sources of Data Related to Mental Health and Substance Abuse

Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS)
The Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) is a state-based system of health surveys that collects information on health risk behaviors, preventive health practices, and healthcare access primarily related to chronic disease and injury. For many states, the BRFSS is the only available source of timely, accurate data on health-related behaviors.
Organization(s): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN)
Public health surveillance system that monitors drug-related hospital emergency departments (EDs) and drug-related deaths investigated by medical examiners and coroners.
Organization(s): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Integrated Health Interview Series (IHIS)
Harmonized set of data and documentation based on material originally included in the public use files of the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) and distributed for free online.
Organization(s): Minnesota Population Center

Medical Expenditure Panel Survey
The Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS) is a set of large-scale surveys of families and individuals, their medical providers, and employers across the United States. MEPS is the most complete source of data on the cost and use of healthcare and health.
Organization(s): Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality

Mental Health Data and Statistics
Information on access to mental health and mental illness (MH/MI) surveillance data sources is provided on various MH/MI topics.
Organization(s): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

National Health Interview Survey (NHIS)
NHIS data on a broad range of health topics are collected through personal household interviews. For over 50 years, the U.S. Census Bureau has been the data collection agent for the National Health Interview Survey. Survey results have been instrumental in providing data to track health status, healthcare access, and progress toward achieving national health objectives.
Organization(s): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R)
Large-scale field survey of mental health in the United States that assessed disorders based on the diagnostic criteria of the then-most current DSM manual, the DSM-III-R (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Third Edition, Revised).
Organization(s): Harvard Medical School

National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)
A primary source of information on the prevalence and consequences of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drug use and abuse for non-institutionalized U.S. citizens aged 12 and older.
Organization(s): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

National Survey of American Life (NSAL)
NSAL builds upon the Program for Research on Black Americans (PRBA) National Survey of Black Americans, a national probability study of 2,107 self-identified Black Americans 18 years of age and older interviewed in 1979-1980.  The NSBA respondents were contacted three times, eight, nine and twelve years after the initial interview, forming the four-wave National Panel Survey of Black Americans (NPSBA).  The study assessed rates of psychological distress and serious mental problems along with a wide-range of social, political and economic factors, in a large, representative longitudinal national sample of Black Americans.
Organization(s): Institute for Social Research

National Survey of Substance Abuse Treatment Services (N-SSATS)
Selected N-SSATS data files are available for public use through the SAMHSA and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Data Archive (SAMHDA) web sites. Included with the files is a data analysis tool that can be used to tabulate and analyze the data over the Internet. Instructions for using the analysis tool and accessing the data files are available by going to the link below.
Organization(s): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System (PRAMS)
Collects data on maternal attitudes and experiences before, during, and shortly after pregnancy and includes information about mothers' smoking and drinking during each of those time periods.
Organization(s): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

School Health Policies and Practices Study (SHPPS)
SHPPS is a national survey periodically conducted to assess school health policies and practices at the state, district, school, and classroom levels, including those related to alcohol and drug use and mental health and social services.
Organization(s): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

State and Metro Brief Reports
A brief overview of the substance abuse and mental health issues within a single state, including the prevalence of substance use and abuse, treatment resources, mental health indicators, and SAMHSA grant funding. Two reports are available for each state: an overall profile of the state and an examination of gender differences among adolescents in the state.
Organization(s): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS)
The TEDS system includes records for some 1.5 million substance abuse treatment admissions annually. While TEDS does not represent the total national demand for substance abuse treatment, it does comprise a significant proportion of all admissions to substance abuse treatment, and includes those admissions that constitute a burden on public funds.
Organization(s): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS)
The YRBSS monitors behaviors that contribute markedly to the leading causes of death, disability, and social problems among youth and adults in the United States.
Organization(s): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention