What we can learn from community psychology and public health

Dev Relationships by Jean Rhodes

As mentoring programs gear up for the fall, many face the problem of long waitlists, resulting from shortages of volunteers (especially men of color). Efforts to mobilize caring adults can increase capacity but volunteer pools often remain limited by the cost of outreach and the growing (and sizable) gap between the number of mentors who are willing to make an often year long commitment to formal mentoring programs and the number of youth on waiting lists.

It is worth noting that similar limitations in traditional psychotherapy relationships led to the emergence of the field of community psychology in the mid-1900s. As its founders argued, problems will never be treated out of existence because they are so widespread. Hence, there will always be a wide gap between the number of caregivers and the many people who are suffering from mental health and related problems. Borrowing from a basic public health tenet, psychologist George Albee famously observed that, “no mass disorder in human history has ever been eliminated or significantly controlled by attempts at treating the affected individual, nor by training large numbers of individual treatment personnel.” Community psychologists also noted that a sole focus on the child can blur the broader context of poverty, discrimination, and powerless from which many social, academic, and behavioral difficulties arose. In fact, by focusing so much on the afflicted individuals, traditional, one-on-one helping models are, at their core, victim blaming.

Community psychologists sought to redress the limited reach of traditional therapeutic models by reducing the incidence of problems through preventive interventions and by empowering affected individuals and their communities (Rappaport, 1977). Mentoring could follow suit. No doubt, there will remain a need for the structure and support that high quality, one-on-one formal relationships and programs can afford, especially for youth who have neither the resources nor inclination to recruit their own support. Yet, even if formal programs were universally effective, they will never meet the large and growing demand for caring adults in the lives of vulnerable youth. We need to widen the net of mentoring strategies. Community-based models of mentoring, like youth-initiated mentoring, and strategies that strengthen existing ties (see Noelle Hurd’s excellent work) can help to mobilize community resources and networks, empower youth to draw on natural support, and encourage the everyday adults in youth’s lives to take a more intentional, active role .