Two new studies highlight the need for more targeted mentoring

by Jean Rhodes

Doctoral student, Alejandro Vázquez, and his faculty mentor, Professor Miguel Villodas had a hunch. They suspected that caregivers were seeking out volunteer mentoring programs as an alternative to traditional mental health services. Villodas, a clinical psychologist, had served as a mentor to several youth, and Vasquez, a doctoral student, was studying patterns of service use in Black and Latinx families. So they conducted a survey of nearly 750 adolescent caregivers and found that Black caregivers were significantly less likely than White caregivers to perceive a need for psychological counseling services for their child, irrespective of symptom severity, and significantly more comfortable with informal service formats, such as youth mentoring programs. 

Their findings were particularly timely as they suggested that parents and other caregivers, particularly those from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds, were likely pinning unrealistically high hopes on programs. Indeed, in a comprehensive report on the effects of mentoring program enhancements, researchers, Jarjoura, Tanyu, Forbush, Herrera, & Keller (2018) found that parents perceived high levels of baseline stress and difficulties in their children. This OJJDP-funded report is a treasure-trove of findings, particularly given the depth of information they collected about parents’ perceptions, mentees’ baseline functioning (many of whom were from racial minority backgrounds; 43% African American, 29% Hispanic/Latino), and mentor-youth activities. 

First, the report suggests that many mentees in the study were struggling with relatively serious stressors and difficulties. At baseline, nearly all (85%) of the responding parents reported that their child had been recently exposed to family stress,(e.g., a family member struggling with substance use, frequent family arguments, homelessness), while more than three quarters noted that their child faced economic adversity (e.g., housing insecurity, gangs or drugs in the neighborhood, parent job instability) stemming from family economic stressors.

Parents also reported at baseline that their children were suffering from academic, social, and emotional difficulties. More than half the parents reported that their child was facing significant difficulties with peers (e.g., being bullied, not having any close friends) and school (e.g., failing or at risk for failing two or more classes/subjects in school, missing school three or more times a month) and nearly half the parents (46%) reported that their child had mental health concerns (e.g., frequent sadness, being under the care of a mental health care provider). This rate is more than double the 20% average rate of psychiatric distress in American children (Schelider & Weisz, 2015). One in five reported that their child had exhibited problematic behavior (e.g., suspensions, substance use, gang participation), rates that are particularly alarming given that the average mentee was only 12 and a half years old. About half (53%) were already receiving at least one service at the start of the study (e.g., counseling, special help at school, medication for a mental health issue).

Despite these risks, it appears that many of the mentoring programs were not directly targeting these challenges. Most exemplified the “friendship” model, where the most common activities reported by mentors in these programs was ”simply having fun with their mentee and discussing important things and people in the mentee’s life,” followed by physical activities like sports or hiking, going to cultural and other special events, and engaging in creative activities. Such activities, although enjoyable, may not have been vitally necessary. According to parents, most mentees (87%) were already involved in positive youth development activities such as sports, clubs, and artistic activities, and the vast majority (71%) already had a natural mentor with whom to connect. 

Particularly given the findings from Vázquez & Villodas’ survey, mentors may benefit from more fully considering caregivers’ reasons for referrals and deploying strategies that more directly targets mentees’ specific needs and circumstances. As the Jarjoura et al. (2018) report makes clear, many youth who are referred to mentoring programs are struggling with severe family stress, and manifesting high rates of academic, mental health, and behavioral problems. Particularly for Black caregivers, these difficulties may have motivated them to seek out a mentoring program. As Vázquez & Villodas (2018) conclude, “systematically integrating evidence-based intervention strategies into youth mentoring programs and increasing their availability to at-risk Black families would facilitate their engagement in quality mental health services using a format that they are more likely to utilize.”

Please see this new interview with Mr. Vázquez & Professor Villodas for their perspectives on this topic.

Read their chapter on the topic.