Mentoring is not enough: We also need to move upstream

Screen Shot 2013-02-03 at 5.53.56 PMby Jean E. Rhodes

Imagine that you’re sitting with a friend beside a river enjoying your lunch. Now, picture this: just as you take your first bite, you hear the sound of a child splashing in the river. To your horror, you realize that she is drowning. What do you do?

Even before I hand out the course syllabus each semester, I start my Community Psychology class with this jarring scenario. And I’m always touched by my college students’ knee jerk willingness to jump into the river and attempt the save.

But then things get complicated. I ask the class what they’d do if, just as they stabilized the child on the riverbank, they looked up and saw two more distressed children struggling against the currents. They would attempt another save, of course, with their friend rescuing the second child. Ok, done. But now three more children are being drawn down the river and, just upstream from them, four more. By now, the mood in the classroom has shifted but, inevitably, a student or two reach the wise conclusion that someone should be dispatched upstream to stop the children from falling in the river!

This is the essence of public health – identifying the source of problems, and then implementing policies and interventions that prevent them from happening. This can include anything from putting fluoride into drinking water to developing a public safety net that is strong and wide enough to prevent most children from succumbing to most obvious threats.

Granted, some will inevitably fall through, but with upstream thinking, more lives will remain safe and healthy. It’s helpful to keep this river in mind as we approach January’s National Mentoring Month, and consider the role of mentoring programs in lives of today’s children and adolescents.

Many of the youth served by mentoring programs have been exposed to some combination of personal and neighborhood stress. Some are suffering from a sort of “relationship poverty,”—the all too common by-product of overcrowded classrooms, insufficient enrichment and extracurricular activities, isolated living situations, and parents who are working round the clock just to make ends meet. Such youth may have the capacity to form caring bonds with adults, they just don’t have the opportunities. They are thus well positioned to benefit from a volunteer mentor. In fact, recent studies suggest that, if mentoring programs were to narrow in on this sweet spot, program effects sizes would soar.

The problem is that even if we did, we would never keep up with growing demand. This demand is due, in no small part, to the growing rates of childhood poverty. Although not a perfect proxy for mentoring demand, child poverty is a solid indicator. In fact, according to data from Columbia University’s National Center for Children in poverty, economic insecurity is the “single greatest threat to children’s well-being.” Unfortunately, after a long period declining rates, the past 15 years have seen a dramatic rise in rates of income instability. Nearly a quarter (22%) of U.S. children are growing up in families with incomes below the federal poverty line, and nearly half (45%) now live in low-income families in which low wages and a patchwork of unstable jobs are making it increasingly difficult for their parents to cover basic expenses. This has implications for mentoring programs, since a central goal is to lift children’s life chances. As a generation of children falls through this safety net, we find ourselves in the same position as the overwhelmed picnickers.

Mentoring programs have advanced the lives of many youth. But we need more than river rescues. Indeed, even if we could double the current number of volunteer mentors, recent research suggests that programs would still be reaching less than 10% of the young people in need. Although volunteer mentoring will always have a vital role to play in the lives of children, the sum total of our individual acts of kindness will never compensate for the kinds of systemic changes that are also needed.