Four takeaways from a forthcoming book on youth mentoring

By Jean Rhodes

When I wrote Stand by Me: The risks and rewards of mentoring today’s youth more than 15 years ago, I assumed that it would be my final, book-length manuscript on youth mentoring.  As I  complete yet a second book on the topic, I am struck by just how much has changed in the ensuing years. Although decades in the making, wealth inequality has soared, throwing a disgraceful 22% of U.S. children below the poverty line. A widening gap between wealthy and poor schools and communities has constrained the talents and economic mobility of a generation of youth. The forces of inequality have also conspired to shift the landscape of mentoring, including its optimal role and reach. Given the often serious and complicated issues facing many youth, we need more than warmth and good intentions to make their interventions work. And we need to more directly capitalize on the evidence-based approaches that have been developed in the context of youth mental health.  More than a decade ago, psychologist John Weisz and his colleagues argued that “the time is right to consider linking, both conceptually and empirically, two often separate but clearly complementary approaches to promoting and protecting youth mental health: treatment and prevention. Connecting the science and practice of prevention and treatment will be good for science, for practice, and for children, adolescents, and their families.” They even provided a roadmapone that the field of mentoring would be wise to followthat involves:

“Identifying effective programs that address the most common problems and disorders facing young people, paying careful attention to their effective adoption across different ethnicities and cultures… specifying the conditions under which programs are most effective and, importantly, the ’change mechanisms’ that underlie these positive effects and … testing interventions across various contexts, and, once proven, disseminating them in ways that make them accessible and effective across a broad range of community and practice settings.”

I am convinced that this is the best prescription for capitalizing on the enormous gift of time and effort that millions of generous mentors offer each year. Treatment science provides the rationale and resources for training and supervising volunteer mentors to serve more effectively. Likewise, prevention science provides a framework for the implementation, evaluation, and dissemination of effective programs across different settings, youth, cultures, and ethnicities. Embracing both fields will position mentoring programs to play an increasingly important role in the continuum of stepped care.

Building on this, I developed a rationale and framework that could help to improve the effects of youth mentoring programs. Below is a sneak preview of some of the recommendations. 

Shift professional tasks to mentors: Particularly in light of the global shortage of mental health providers and other youth-serving professionals, the length and cost of professional training, the expense and difficulties associated with accessing mental health and wellness services, and the stigma and distrust that professional services carry in many marginalized communities, mentors and other lay helpers should be more carefully trained and supervised to support and/or deliver evidence-based care. This will enable us to more effectively “give psychology away.”

Prioritize mental health and well-being: As I noted in my previous column, although youth mentoring programs should continue to target the full range of issues (e.g.., social inclusion, academic performance, civic engagement, college access, job skills), mental health and wellness may be particularly promising priorities. The basic contours of formal mentoring relationships follow those of professional helping relationships (e.g., meeting once a week in mostly one-on-one relationships), and many youth mentees present with acute symptoms of anxiety, depression, and social, emotional, and behavioral struggles that impede their academic performance and other upstream goals. What’s more, concerns about mental health are often what prompt parent and teacher referrals, and mentoring programs appear to be particularly successful in moving the needle on depression in vulnerable youth.  As we move in this direction, programs should find ways to more directly recognize and credential the work of their volunteers with course credits, professional credentials, etc.. 

Calibrate risk with intervention: Although mentees present with a range of risk and protective factors, many programs still take a one-size-fits-all approach. Additionally, although mentors’ expertise can vary in ways that affect their capacity to help, this variable is not systematically taken into account. Programs should determine the nature, severity, and best approach to targeting their mentees’ most salient challenges, and then match them to mentors with the minimum experience necessary to effectively support them. And, just as youth are rarely referred to therapists or other specialists simply for companionship, the same should hold true in formal mentoring programs. There will simply never be enough trained mentors to go around. Only about 5% of U.S. children and adolescents are served by mentoring programs and not every child needs or wants the level of structure that they provide. Formal mentoring relationships should thus be viewed as an early, non-stigmatizing source of paraprofessional support that is less intensive than professional counseling but more structured than natural mentoring support. 

Embrace supporting roles for mentors: In contrast to specialized mentoring programs, which can zero in on particular issues and populations, large, nonspecific programs like cannot possibly be expected to deliver the full range of targeted, evidence-based services required to effectively meet their mentees’ diverse needs. Rather than deliver interventions, mentors in nonspecific programs should be trained to support their mentees’ engagement in targeted, evidence-based interventions

The book should be out sometime early next year. In the meantime, I look forward to hearing your reactions to this preview!