New study examines the role of mentoring in supporting adolescents with diabetes

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Barnetz Z. and Feigin R. (2012)., “We didn’t Have to Talk”: Adolescent Perception of Mentor-Mentee Relationships in an Evaluation Study of a Mentoring Program for Adolescents with Juvenile Diabetes. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal.


Type 1, “juvenile,” or “insulin dependent” diabetes is a condition in which children’s pancreases produces insufficient insulin. It requires constant care, including injections and close monitoring of blood sugar. About 10 to 15% of diabetics are Type 1 and the typical onset is before the age of 20. Type II, a condition that is more often adult onset and is can be more readily managed with diet and exercise alone, is far more prevalent.

Adjusting to the medical routines associated with managing their Type 1 diabetes can be particularly challenging for adolescents, given their:

  • need to gain independence
  • need to fit in
  • an ambivalence toward dependency
  • drive toward greater freedom; and
  • identity-seeking etc.

Given the more intensive management required in Type 1 diabetes, mentoring has proven an effective tool in gaining the adolescents’ cooperative adherence to treatment regimens. In  an effort to study the potential benefits of mentoring as it pertains to supporting adolescents with Type 1 diabetes, a 3-year study comprising 3 groups of one-year long duration each was implemented in Tel Aviv.


Diabetic adolescents were paired with young, diabetic adults who were found to be coping well with the disease and could therefore serve as role models for their adolescent counterparts. Meeting twice a week for a 2-hour period, mentors and mentees engaged in a variety of shared interests and activities. In addition, group meetings for both mentees and mentors were held every two months.

The aim of the study was to examine mentor-mentee reciprocal relations and to better understand relationship variables that contribute to the adolescents’ compliant participation in the management of their medical and dietary regimens. Year-end interviews were conducted of each mentee (24 in this study) with particular focus on their perceptions as to the efficacy and significance of the mentor relationship.

The year-end interview process resulted in a gathering of data that categorized mentee perceptions and emotional responses into three themes: 1. Relationship patterns; 2. Learning through observation and; 3. The emotional effect of the mentor pairing on the mentee.


 1. The “Relationship Patterns” theme examines the emotional connection between mentors and mentees and identifies 4 possible interpersonal developments:

  • Soul Mate
  • Social Worker
  • Admired Role Model, and
  • Recreational Partner.

Interesting, although all relationships began at the “Recreational Partner” level, most mentees spoke about developing deeper, more meaningful connections with their mentors.  With the “Soul Mate” response, mentees spoke about a level of intimacy with their mentor based on a shared commonality.  In the “Social Worker” level of the relationship, mentees felt they gained valuable assistance and guidance with a variety of diabetes related problems. And, with the “Admired Role Model” relationship response, mentees reported an emotion-based admiration of their mentor. The enthusiasm mentees felt about their mentor motivated them to adopt various healthy and balanced approaches to their diabetes.

2. The “Learning Through Observation” theme highlighted the importance of organic exposure to the mentor’s healthy attitudes and habits.  More than discussions or lessons, the simple act of regular interaction with the mentor helped mentees to adopt better practices (improved skills and attitudes) as they related to their disease.

3. The “The Emotional Effect of the Mentor on the Mentee” theme illuminated by this study discusses the importance of the emotional connection felt by the mentees. Mentees spoke excitedly about feelings of hope, empowerment and the banishment of their feelings of isolation as a result of their mentor-mentee relationship.

Conclusions and Implications

Although more studies be conducted to strengthen the findings that validate the positive effects of mentoring relationships on adolescents living with Type 1 diabetes, these results suggest that mentors can play an important role in helping young people manage this disease.

This study has implications for mentors working with youth who are struggling with Type I diabetes and presumably Type II diabetes and  other medical conditions. Moreover, the themes that were identified are applicable to all mentoring relationships and can inform the way that researchers and practitioners think about the types and stages  of adult-youth ties. 

summarized by Micheline Mann