A conversation (and important announcement) about mentoring and mental health

by Jean Rhodes

A growing number of youth who are referred to mentoring programs are struggling with mental health concerns, such as depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress, aggression, or attention difficulties. Mentoring programs have an important role to play in addressing this growing crisis. Under the right conditions, formal mentoring programs, can shift toward being a non-stigmatizing source of paraprofessional support that is less intensive than professional counseling but more structured than natural mentoring support. To this end, we are delighted to be offering a course on just this topic! The course will be taught live, over Zoom, and program staff, mentors, and other course participants will learn about cutting-edge techniques proven by research to be effective in clinical settings. It will also discuss how to implement these strategies in diverse mentoring program settings. Participants will discuss how the ways that youth identity may intersect with mentoring techniques, and consider how to apply techniques in a culturally-humble way with youth from diverse, marginalized backgrounds.

The course will be taught by the amazing Professor Liz Raposa. Liz is a licensed clinical psychologist and Associate Professor in the Clinical Psychology Program at Fordham University. She received her B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles. After a clinical internship at Yale New Haven Hospital, she completed a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship at the Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. As many of you already know (just do a search for her on the Chronicle), Liz’s research focuses on how supportive relationships (e.g., with parents, mentors, or teachers) can offset the negative impact of stress or early adversity on youth mental health. As part of that work, she spends a lot of time developing and testing interventions that mentoring programs can use to support youth mental health. And a big part of her job as a professor involves training students in doctoral programs to implement evidence-based treatments for a wide range of youth mental health problems (e.g., anxiety, depression, attention difficulties, aggression, sleep problems). She supervises these clinicians-in-training as they practice effective mental health treatments with children, adolescents, and families in the community-based clinic in the Bronx.

Besides being incredibly smart and productive, and an all around amazing scholar, Liz is a patient mentor, talented instructor, and wonderful person. I recently sat down with Liz to discuss how (and why) mentors should be trained in the basics of evidence-based mental health care.

JR Can you tell us why you think mentors should be trained in mental health basics?

LR As most people who have ever volunteered as a mentor know, many youth who are referred to mentoring programs these days are struggling with significant adversity at home or at school, plus one or more mental health concerns. Of course, it’s not a mentor’s job to treat all of these concerns themselves. However, knowing the basics of how to respond to common mental health concerns in youth can mean that a mentor is better able to notice when a mentee is dealing with mental health issues and effectively connect them to any additional resources they might need. This can mean the difference between a failed mentoring relationship (e.g., because the mentor was too overwhelmed, or because the mentee felt misunderstood) and a successful one.

JR As clinical psychology professors, we both know that Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) often requires years of training? Is it realistic to expect paraprofessionals to learn and provide CBT?

LR Yes! Modern approaches to public health are increasingly acknowledging that the one-to-one psychotherapy model of getting mental health support–where each child/family must attend formalized therapy sessions with a trained clinician–will simply never be sufficient to meet all of the pressing and diverse needs of today’s youth and families, and certainly not in a culturally-sensitive way. As a result, many studies have tested whether we can teach the basics of these evidence-based interventions to a wide range of other supportive adults and peers who come in regular contact with youth and their mental health concerns. And these studies have shown that non-mental health professionals can be just as effective (and in some communities, perhaps even more effective!) at supporting youth with respect to their mental health concerns.

JR That’s awesome. Quick followup–Are there limits to the types of issues that mentors should try to take on?

LR Absolutely. This course will not be preparing anyone to treat all mental health issues themselves. There are still significant mental health concerns that need consistent treatment by a trained professional clinician like a social worker or psychologist. In our course, we’ll talk about how to know when something more serious is going on, and the kinds of resources you might connect youth and families to in those situations.

JR I noticed you’ll be covering “trauma-informed mentoring.” Can you think of the type of situation where exposure to this might be helpful?

LR Trauma-informed mentoring is about understanding the kinds of trauma that may be present in mentees’ lives, while also learning techniques for fostering a sense of safety, support, and connection in the face of these adverse experiences. Kids who are exposed to traumas like the death of a parent, parental incarceration, witnessing violence, or a history of maltreatment may have a different set of emotional needs as they enter a mentoring relationship, and trauma-informed mentoring helps mentors to think through adaptations to their work using a strengths-based approach that fosters the child’s resilience.

JR Both mentees and mentors are sometimes resistant to working on challenges, esp. since mentoring is often presented an opportunity to have fun together. How can programs “sell” the idea that mentors and mentees should work on goals? How do they strike a balance between fun and work? Will you be covering strategies to keep mentors and mentees motivated and engaged?

LR One thing the science of helping kids has shown us is that goal-focused work needs to identify goals that are personally relevant to the child in order to keep them engaged. In our course, we’ll cover evidence-based techniques for enhancing youth motivation in mentoring that were originally developed for individuals reluctant to reduce problematic use of alcohol and other substances. These techniques help to enhance motivation and connect goal-focused work back to someone’s personal goals, even when working on something that’s especially hard or that they’re ambivalent about. And of course, fun can always be woven into mentoring to support and reinforce more goal-focused work!

JR Speaking of balancing, I know you’re balancing teaching this course with having two young children and a full time professorship at Fordham. What sorts of things do you and your family do for fun?

LR My kids (ages 5 and 2) are very into nature and the outdoors these days, so that means lots of family hikes, playground exploring, and (these days) sledding and playing in the snow. We also love to travel when we can, and are lucky to have friends and family scattered across the U.S. that we can visit. And of course it’s always nice for me to get some kid-free time alone to drink tea and read a novel on the weekend!

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