How youth-initiated mentoring can help address youth mental health problems during COVID-19

van Dam, L., Rhodes, J., & Spencer, R. (2021). Youth-Initiated Mentoring as a Scalable Approach to Addressing Mental Health Problems During the COVID-19 Crisis. JAMA Psychiatry.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • The pandemic is taking a toll on youths’ mental health. Although children are not as susceptible to the virus as adults are, they are more likely to have higher levels of anxiety and depression. 
  • Because marginalized youths are less likely to have a caring non-parental mentor in their lives, this paper discusses some of the ways they can benefit from youth-initiated mentoring (YIM). 
  • YIM relationships tend to last for a long time. 
  • Qualitative studies have demonstrated how meaningful YIM programs are for mentors. Many of them said that they already felt like they were making a difference since the mentee chose them as their mentor.
  • The fact that the mentor already knows their mentee serves as an advantage. It makes it easier for the mentor to have realistic expectations of their relationships with their mentees and makes it easier for them to develop their relationships with their mentees.
  • The authors also emphasize the need for clinical services to provide early interventions and support for youths, in addition to the mobilization of social networks.
  • It is vital to make mentoring relationships as accessible to as many kids as possible, especially during these challenging times. 

Introduction (Reprinted from the first paragraph)

Although adolescents have lower COVID-19 infection rates compared with adults, the pandemic is taking a toll on young people’s mental health. There have been multiple reports of increases in mental health challenges for adolescents during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, including a rapid systematic review indicating that adolescents are now more likely to experience high rates of depression and anxiety. This calls for a response from clinical services to offer support and early intervention where possible and be prepared for an increase in mental health problems. It also calls for the mobilization of social networks, which are beneficial for health and can function as a buffer against various individual and contextual risks. Especially for adolescents, supportive relationships with caring adults have been found to be a protective factor of the development for mental health problems. Therefore, besides societal awareness of the potential effect of these supportive relationships, clinicians, social workers, and teachers should facilitate youths’ connections with natural mentors.

Implications (Reprinted from second, third, & fourth paragraph)

Supportive, nonparental adults play a critical role in the lives of adolescents, helping them navigate their identities, and providing support that can offset considerable individual and contextual risks, while promoting resilience across a range of important academic, behavioral, and health domains (eg, van Dam et al). Research indicates that the benefits of such relationships for mental and relational health can last into adulthood, even for those who experienced significant childhood adversities. Yet adolescents from ethnic minority groups as well as socioeconomically disadvantaged families are less likely to have such supportive and caring relationships with nonparental adults relative to their more privileged peers (eg, Raposa et al). Despite considerable efforts to foster such connections through formal youth mentoring programs that match youths with adult volunteers, recruiting enough adults to meet the demands of vulnerable youths and their families has been a persistent problem, as has retaining these mentors once matched with mentees. Youth-initiated mentoring (YIM), a hybrid approach in which youths and their families are helped to identify and recruit caring adult mentors from within their existing social networks and to maintain such relationships, is a promising strategy for addressing these problems and expanding the reach of youth mentoring.

Although most YIM programs are in the early stages of development, a 2021 meta-analysis describes its application in different domains: to prevent school dropout as a systemic approach to prevent out-of-home placement among vulnerable youths, with youths in foster care, with delinquent youths, as a preventive approach for youths who are at risk or being hospitalized for attempting suicide, and as a universal prevention strategy in educational settings to support first-generation college students. The meta-analysis provides encouraging empirical evidence that this approach protects against risks, fosters positive outcomes, and might improve the outcomes of youth psychological therapy and the delivery of treatment. The study revealed that, across a range of outcomes, overall effects were significantly greater (g = 0.30) than achieved by either formal mentoring (volunteer-based mentoring, g = 0.21) or purely natural mentoring (youths experiencing a supportive adult within their community but not embedded within a formal mentoring program, g = 0.22).3

The reported effects of YIM programs may in part result from the familiarity and comfort with the recruited mentors as well as the tendency to focus on specific problems (eg, violence prevention in a high-violence area, prevention of suicide, and out-of-home placement). Such targeted approaches differ from most formal mentoring programs, which use a general nonspecific, friendship approach for youths with various needs. A 2020 meta-analysis indicated that targeted mentor programs, matched to the specific needs of their mentees, had larger effect sizes than nonspecific programs (g = 0.25 vs g = 0.11). Moreover, several of the interventions included in the YIM meta-analysis incorporated professional mental health treatment with the YIM approach, a focus that may have resulted in stronger treatment motivation, more positive adult-youth alliances, and improved goal orientation.

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