The surprising role of hobbies in boosting youth mental health: Implications for mentoring

By Jean Rhodes

A 2020 Young People’s Mental Health Report compiled by Mental Health America, sheds light onto the pressing mental health challenges faced by youth and young adults in the United States and the need to equip young people with the necessary tools and support to address mental health issues. Rates of mental health struggles have only worsened in the post-pandemic years. 

The report also emphasizes the positive impact of hobbies on young people’s mental health during the pandemic. In fact, a remarkable 72% of survey respondents identified hobbies as a significant help to their mental health, followed by friends (53%), social media (46%), and online communities (22%).

Implications for mentoring

What sorts of hobbies interest young people? And does it matter if mentors share those interests? In one study, my colleagues and I examined inventories of mentor and youth preferences for hobbies and activities. This enabled us to code for baseline concordance and discordance of mentor and youth likes and dislikes (Raposa et al.).  Matches in which there were a greater number of youth hobbies and interests that were not endorsed by mentors were associated with the largest risk for earlier match termination. These findings suggest that it might be essential for mentoring programs to encourage mentors to actively engage in youth interests, even when they do not necessarily match with the mentor’s preferences.

Table 1 displays the frequency of agreement between mentors and youth about interest in specific hobbies. The four interests shared most commonly by mentor and youth were playing sports, outdoor activities, movies/concerts, and attending sports events. The four least shared interests were sewing, poetry, fashion, and mechanical hobbies.

Interestingly, these results revealed that matches with a greater number of shared dislikes for specific activities had the longest lasting matches, were less likely to experience an early termination prior to the program’s one-year expectation, were less likely to report terminating the relationship for various common reasons (e.g., loss of interest, lack of time), and were more likely to report successfully completing the match. These findings are intriguing and suggest that mentoring programs might benefit from assessing and taking into account the activities mentors and youth do not prefer, in addition to those activities they like.

In the best mentoring relationships, the mentor and mentee bond around shared interests (or dislikes!) and balance friendship with a focus on shared goals. This involves shared decision-making, with an eye toward providing new opportunities to engage around interests and skill building.

Beyond hobbies, Young People’s Mental Health Report stressed the importance of providing access to mental health professionals, mental health breaks or absences as part of school or work, and learning to support one’s mental health during daily life. It further underscores the need to train adults to support young people’s mental health and to train peers to understand and talk about mental health. Resources like MentorPRO Academy can be helpful in that regard.

The report calls for a collaborative approach that involves working directly with young people as partners and leaders to address their mental health needs. By connecting with young people around shared interests, mentors can tap into a very meaningful foundation for relationship building.