The Pulse from UnitedHealthcare: Rising teenage suicide rates and its impact on employees

Dr. Donald Tavakoli shares how employers can help support employees who have teens at risk for severe mental health issues, such as self-harm and suicide.


By Dr. Donald Tavakoli, National Medical Director of Behavioral Health at UnitedHealthcare

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 to 14 and the third-leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 15 to 24.1 And between 2012 to 2014 and 2018 to 2020, the teen suicide rate skyrocketed by 29%.2 In certain pockets of the country, that rate was even higher.


Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and South Dakota have some of the nation's highest teen suicide rates.

As a psychiatrist, let me just underscore that these numbers are unprecedented. As a father, I can only begin to imagine the deep suffering and pain that surrounds every teen who takes their own life. There is no doubt in my mind that our country's teens need help — and the parents and family members who care for children with mental health issues need support too.

Let me be clear: There is no easy fix to this expansive, devastating problem; there's no one-size-fits-all solution. After many years of academic and clinical practice, I've come to realize that preventing teen suicide requires a coordinated, group effort.

Providing robust behavioral health benefits

Behavioral health benefits can be a lifeline to employees who have children with mental health concerns. At UnitedHealthcare, our behavioral health solutions are laser-focused on guiding families to the right care across a full range of programs and capabilities.

Using clinical knowledge and data analytics, we built a member segmentation model around 3 severity levels that helps us to 1) understand an individual's needs and 2) identify how best to care for them. We also understand that often, parents need help in real time: When facing a mental health issue, nearly half of individuals prefer immediate support versus scheduling time with a therapist or coach.3

To help solve for this, UnitedHealthcare offers a confidential 24/7, unlimited Emotional Health Line for eligible members. Trained, master’s-level emotional health specialists are just a phone call away. Offering tailored care recommendations, these specialists can also connect employees to programs they may be eligible for, such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), coaching, in-person or virtual therapy and digital self-help tools. 

On the ground with the Family Support Program

If teens are harming themselves or having suicidal thoughts, their parents are often overwhelmed — and even confused about how to access the mental health support their kids need. When employers offer behavioral health benefits, they make it that much easier for employees to get their teens the support they need. 

Establishing a supportive workplace culture

Creating supportive workplaces is also critical to helping parents who are managing the stress, anxiety and worry involved with caring for teens who are at risk for suicide. Beyond offering behavioral health benefits, businesses can normalize the idea of using those benefits by sharing the importance of mental health at all employee meetings, through email communications and by encouraging managers to check in on the mental and emotional well-being of their team members and their families.

Businesses can also take the initiative to provide their employees with resources and support, such as offering flexible working arrangements and promoting a work-life balance that encourages employees to take time to connect with their families and prioritize their own health and well-being. 

Leveraging in-depth research

Continuing to optimize our behavioral health solutions, so employers have what they need to support their employees and dependents is a process we take very seriously.

For instance, we recently completed extensive research to better understand youth ages 13–26 who are experiencing behavioral health symptoms, conditions and treatment.

What we learned is that traditional intervention paths and solutions are not working for this generation as well as we had hoped.

  • Primary care providers generally see individual youth too infrequently to identify mental health concerns, much less make referrals for them
  • Teachers, coaches and other community leaders may have more interactions and influence with youth but are not always privy to such concerns or professionally equipped to address them
  • Many youth say they are reluctant to confide in their parents and caregivers because they don’t want to burden them, fear they will overreact or don’t believe they can help

We are leveraging the results of our in-depth research and analysis to design new pathways. We hope to better connect with and engage children, adolescents and young adults through the people, places and things they interact with and trust - whether that’s virtually or even right in their schools.

For instance, United Health Foundation has committed $3M to Active Minds.2 The funding will enable a pilot program in 50 school districts across Minnesota, North Carolina and Florida to better address youth mental health at the middle school level. 

With 19 years of impact, and a presence at more than 1,000 campuses, schools, communities and workplaces nationwide, Active Minds — a leading nonprofit organization promoting mental health awareness and education for young adults — is reducing the stigma around mental health, creating communities of support, and saving lives.

If you or a loved one is having a mental health or substance-use crisis, call or text 988 to connect with the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. If you have an immediate, life-threatening emergency, call 911.

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