by Jean Rhodes
In 2010, mentoring researchers Michael Karcher, Carla Herrera, and Keoki Hansen observed that, “Mentors are often given little guidance in what to talk about or do with their mentees, though many argue that what they do together matters. Like the friendly vultures in the classic Disney movie, The Jungle Book, mentors often find themselves responding to their mentee’s requests for activity ideas with something like, ‘I dunno, what do you wanna do?’”
New data suggest suggest that, even as programs and mentors struggle to develop meaningful activities, many mentees are facing significant struggles that can and should be addressed. A recent national evaluation of 20 representative mentoring programs, Roger Jarjoura and his colleagues found that nearly 70% of mentees were from marginalized, non-majority racial backgrounds. The vast majority (85%) of the mentees’ parents reported that their children had recently been exposed to family stress (e.g., a family member struggling with substance use, frequent family arguments, homelessness), while more than three quarters (76%) noted that their child faced economic adversity (e.g., housing insecurity, gangs or drugs in the neighborhood, parent job instability) stemming from the fact that the median annual income for participating families was in the range of $20,001 to $30,000 – well below the poverty threshold. Compared to national averages, mentees were roughly twice as likely to be living in extreme poverty, in a single-parent household, and to have an incarcerated parent or family member.
Not surprisingly, given these difficult circumstances, many mentees were already struggling with relatively serious academic, social, and emotional difficulties. At intake, more than half of parents reported that their child was facing academic struggles (e.g., failing or at risk for failing two or more classes/subjects in school, missing school three or more times a month; 52%) and significant difficulties with peers (e.g., being bullied, not having any close friends; 52%). Nearly half the parents (46%) also reported that their children had mental health concerns (e.g., frequent sadness, being under the care of a mental health care provider). Roughly one in five (19%) reported that their child had exhibited problematic behavior (e.g., suspensions, substance use, arrest/pick-up/contact with police), rates that are dramatically higher than national averages, which was particularly alarming given that the average mentee was approximately 12 years old. Finally, the referred youth were more than twice as likely to be suffering from a mental health problem (46%) such as depression or anxiety, and three times more likely to have ADHD (28%) compared to national averages. ADHD and related behavioral problems appear to take a particular toll on adult-youth relationships. Yet, only about a quarter of the youth were receiving counseling or therapy, and even fewer were getting help at school (22%), or receiving medication for mental health struggles (20%). Other studies have yielded similar trends. Herrera (role of risk) found that a quarter of the youth in their large-scale evaluations reported high levels of depressive symptoms at baseline.
Recent studies suggest that many parents and guardians, particularly those from marginalized backgrounds, are actually seeking out mentoring programs in place of professional services to treat what are, in some cases, clinically significant psychosocial difficulties. In a survey of nearly 750 caregivers to adolescents, Black caregivers were significantly less likely than White caregivers to perceive a need for psychological counseling services for their adolescent, irrespective of symptom severity, and were significantly more comfortable with informal service formats like mentoring. Further, the odds that Black caregivers would report that their adolescent needed a mentoring program were more than two times higher when their adolescents were showing internalizing or externalizing problems, compared to adolescents with subclinical problems. Likewise, in another recent study of Big Brothers Big Sisters Canada, 25% of parents identified their child’s disability or psychiatric illness as a primary reason for referral to school-based mentoring programs. The relative comfort with mentoring programs may stem from the fact that many marginalized parents face significant barriers (e.g., transportation, insurance, language, lack of knowledge/access, stigmatization) to obtaining mental health and other similar services for their children and adolescents. Their children are far more likely than those of affluent parents to receive medication as opposed to specialty behavioral or psychosocial intervention in response to emotional or behavioral struggles. Families of color are also more likely to experience mental health services and providers as discriminatory, coercive, and culturally insensitive. Consequently, compared to White youth, youth of color have disproportionate rates of unmet mental health service needs.
These studies suggest that parents and caregivers are turning to mentoring programs as a more accessible alternative to traditional youth mental health services. Yet, instead of preparing their volunteers with clear, measurable goals and careful training and supervision, youth mentoring programs are often providing vague objectives and offering relatively little training, direction, and supervision of volunteers to achieve those objectives.
Advocates of the friendship model might argue that, whatever they eventually “wanna do,” be it crafts, sports, or going to a museum, it is likely to be a valuable experience since mentees’ lives are so bereft of activities and adult involvement. Yet there is evidence that many mentees are already involved in a wide array of extracurricular activities and positive youth development programs when they sign up for mentoring programs. In the national survey of mentoring programs, the majority of mentees (87%) were already engaged in sports, clubs, and/or artistic activities at baseline. Many were also enrolled in after school activities (68%), team sports (52%), school clubs (40%), career services (43%), community service (34%), and more. Nearly a third of the matches met during after-school hours, which may mean that youth were being pulled from these organized activities to meet with their mentors.
Another argument is that one-to-one attention from a caring adult is important in its own right because so many youths are lacking special adults in their lives. Again, this claim must be tempered by the fact that, according to a recent national study of mentoring programs, the great majority of mentees (71%) enter the programs with at least one “special non-parent adult” already in their lives, a rate that is consistent with national youth surveys. Enrolling one’s child in a mentoring program is not trivial. It often involves completing applications, attending intake meetings, and enduring long waitlists.
Particularly in light of the high rates of mentees’ baseline difficulties, as well as their involvement in positive youth development activities and relationships with natural mentors, it is likely that parents are looking for something more specific than a caring, fun-spirited adult.