How therapeutic mentoring can help bridge gaps in mental health care

By Jean Rhodes

An estimated two-thirds U.S. children and adolescents who suffer from mental health problems will never receive professional care. What’s more BIPOC youth are about half as likely as White youth to access services and receive evidence-based care.  As my colleagues and I have argued, the field of mentoring is well-positioned to step up and help bridge these gaps.  The thousands of youth mentoring programs in the U.S.  and beyond represent a largely untapped and potentially efficient and renewable source of potential helpers to address this crisis in mental health. And, although not all program are focused on child social and emotional development, those programs that are serving youth with mental health struggles could train their volunteers to better support children, particularly if they are under the supervision of professional mental health providers.

For example, volunteer mentors could play a key role in providing support activities for children’s and families’ mental health treatment. This could include supporting parental involvement in treatment, including increasing communication and collaboration between parents and providers.  Mentors could also support youth as they engage in mental health apps (MHapps) and other technology-delivered interventions (TDI’s). And, under the right supervision, they could be trained to deliver or support structured treatment. These efforts may be particularly appropriate for youth with somewhat milder presenting concerns or those who are otherwise unwilling or unable to engage in in-person therapy.

All of this could help to pave the way for the recognition and certification of a workforce of volunteer and paid “therapeutic mentors.” Although state laws and policies vary widely across the U.S., all states have accreditation and regulatory standards for providers of psychological services, and implementing a model of paraprofessional mentoring will require that mentoring organizations work with state regulatory bodies to establish new accreditation standards or to revise existing standards to include mentors, depending on the scope of policies currently in effect.

In Massachusetts, for example, “therapeutic mentoring” has been implemented over the past decade in response to a class action lawsuit that required the state to provide more comprehensive, accessible mental health care services to children ( Therapeutic mentors are typically members of multidisciplinary treatment teams that involve mental health professionals, case managers, and medical providers, and are often dispatched to youth’s homes and communities to support the pursuit and adherence of larger treatment goals. Massachusetts has established guidelines around the necessary background, training, and oversight of therapeutic mentors but does not license individual mentors. Rather, the state accredits agencies (hospitals, community health centers, private agencies) that have demonstrated competence in training and overseeing therapeutic mentors, which in turn have the discretion to hire, train, and supervise mentors. In other states there are stricter laws on the necessary training, education, and licensing of providers of psychological services, and as laws are currently written, formal providers of psychological services must have advanced degrees and be individually licensed by the state.

To ethically and legally implement these models of mental health mentoring, organizations, researchers, and policymakers will need to collaborate.  Likewise, as mentors take on more paraprofessional roles and partner with more advanced supervisors, programs should find ways to more explicitly recognize and credential volunteer service (e.g., course credits, continuing education unit, therapeutic mentoring certification). And, as the field moves toward certification of therapeutic mentoring, it will open new opportunities and professional pathways for entry-level mental health professionals and, in doing so, help to bridge gaps in mental health care.