Why evaluation matters in suicide prevention

The Sax Institute is working with the Victorian Government to evaluate its suicide prevention trials and uncover next steps for this crucial program.

Victoria has set a worthy goal to halve its suicide rate by 2025. But in a state as diverse as Victoria, and with a topic as sensitive as suicide, how do you begin to reach all corners of a community?

This is the challenge and opportunity of Victoria’s place-based suicide prevention trials, which are currently running in 12 locations across the state in partnership with Primary Health Networks. These trials work closely with communities to develop locally-tailored, evidence-informed approaches to suicide prevention, which can range from community meetings at tool shops for men to talk about mental health, to bereavement workshops for families.

There was a time when evaluating such a large-scale initiative would have been left to the end of a program, but in a progressive move, the Victorian government has chosen to embed evaluation right from the beginning to help inform efforts across the state as they’re happening.

Evaluation as a foundation for better health

Anne Redman, Director of the Sax Institute’s Evaluate program, says evaluation is all about unpacking the data and understanding how well a program was implemented.

Beginning in 2017, trial organisers began working with the Sax Institute’s Evaluate team and Southern Synergy at Monash University to design a multi-phase developmental evaluation framework. This framework aims to help communities work together more effectively towards preventing suicides, while exploring how well they achieve this and their own progress in recognising and responding to people in suicidal crisis.

Since 2017, evaluators have been analysing a range of administrative, survey and interview data collected from staff working in the 12 suicide prevention sites and their various community and organisational partners, to understand which parts of the trials are working, and which can be adjusted for greater impact.

Katharine Gibson, Senior Policy Officer with the Department of Health and Human Services, says the first phase of the evaluation has already provided valuable insights. “We hold a community of practice every six weeks that brings all the sites together,” she says. “From the evaluation, it came out that this has been a good method for the coordinators to build their own capacity in suicide prevention. So that’s something we want to continue, even after the trials have finished.”

Katharine also says Sax Institute evaluators have provided a range of tools and strategies for sites to do some of the evaluation themselves across individual programs they might be running. “The evaluators are helping sites to identify some of the learnings and change their practices as they go. That kind of adaptive learning approach has been really great as well.”

Not a report card, but a chance for change

Anne Redman, Director of the Sax Institute’s Evaluate program, says there is a growing recognition of the value of embedding evaluation at the start of a program, and that it’s not about getting ticks or crosses.  “Often without an evaluation, you can know the nuts and bolts of a program, but you don’t know the so what: if we did this, did it make any difference? Those are the questions we’re trying to answer,” says Anne.

“Evaluation is all about unpacking the data, understanding how well the program was implemented, pinpointing the challenges, and figuring out how they were addressed – because the reality is, if you ever want to scale up, you need to understand the how and the why.”

As the Victorian government’s suicide prevention trials now move into their fourth and final year, the Sax Evaluate team are currently completing a formative evaluation that will inform the last year of the pilot and future approaches to suicide prevention.

Watch the video about Victoria’s place-based suicide prevention trials

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