How mentoring programs can help address the youth mental health crisis

By Jean Rhodes

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recent released a report warning of a worsening mental health crisis among adolescents. In a recent large survey ( N =7,700), more than 40% of young people reported feeling  “persistently sad or hopeless,” with 20% saying they have contemplated suicide.  As the Deputy Director noted, “These data echo a cry for help…The COVID-19 pandemic has created traumatic stressors that have the potential to further erode students’ mental well-being.” Yet, even as many of their mentees are coping with acute mental health issues, many programs struggle to develop and implement meaningful match activities leaving volunteers in the lurch about what exactly they and their mentees should do together.  

Mentoring programs have an important role to play in addressing this crisis. Although programs should continue to target the full range of issues (e.g., academic performance, civic engagement, college access, job skills), mental health and wellness are 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 long-term goals. Mental health concerns are often what prompt parent and teacher referrals, and mentoring programs are particularly successful in moving the needle on depression in vulnerable youth.

Moreover, 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, more mentors should be trained and supervised to support and/or deliver evidence-based care.

To do this, programs must first determine mentees’ most salient challenges, identify the best, evidence-based approach to employ, and then provide them to mentors who have been trained to effectively support them. Under the right conditions, formal mentoring programs, can shift toward being a non-stigmatizing source of paraprofessional support that is less intensive than professional counseling but more structured than natural mentoring support. Just as youth are not referred to therapists or other specialists simply for companionship, the same should hold true in formal mentoring programs.