Let’s put effective mental health strategies into every mentor’s tool box

Whether we plan for it or not, mental health conversations will inevitably arise within mentoring relationships. Liz Raposa, Ph.D.

by Jean Rhodes

When mental health struggles arise, many mentors are caught off guard and forced to rely on intuitive approaches that may or may not be grounded in evidence. Supervision is crucial, but mentors who also have basic training in effective mental health responses are better prepared. Fortunately, a growing number of trainings have emerged, including clinical psychology professor Liz Raposa’s  new self-paced “Mentoring for Mental Health,” which is designed specifically for mentors. Below Liz Raposa shares her thoughts. 

Mentoring for Mental Health  Professor Liz Raposa

One weekend during the Fall of 2020, I received a worried text from a college student mentor I was supervising. He had been paired with a 13-year-old mentee from a local middle school. We didn’t know it at the time, but this mentee was struggling with fairly significant depression, and over the weekend he had been rushed to the hospital for potential suicidality. The mentee had called his mentor to let him know he couldn’t make their next mentoring meeting, and to reschedule for a time after his hospital discharge. All of a sudden, a college student who had just begun mentoring as a part of one of his college classes—and was juggling his own struggles with the COVID-19 pandemic—was tasked with the prospect of having conversations about suicide and psychiatric hospitalization with his mentee. Similar (although perhaps less extreme) situations are unfortunately not rare in most mentoring programs.
When I supervise mentors, or consult with programs, one of the most common questions I get is how to prepare mentors to support the mental health of their mentees more effectively. Indeed, recent estimates have shown that half of all adolescents in the U.S. have met criteria for at least one psychiatric disorder at some point in their lifetime, with many more struggling with mental health concerns that don’t quite reach diagnostic thresholds (HHS, 2021). And many families turn to mentoring programs for help with these youth mental health problems. One quarter of all mentees in school-based mentoring programs have parents who cite physical or mental illness as the primary reason for referral (Sourk et al., 2019), and BIPOC families in the U.S. may be especially likely to lean on mentoring for intervention around their children’s behavioral difficulties, like school conduct problems or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD; Vázquez & Villodas, 2019). The good news is that mentors can play a critical role in addressing the mental health crisis among today’s youth. It is well-documented that supportive relationships promote resilience.
Perhaps for that reason, formalized mentoring programs are associated with improvements on a wide range of youth mental health outcomes, including things like depression, anxiety, conduct problems, substance use, and attention difficulties (Herrera et al., 2023; Raposa et al., 2019). But mentors need the right kinds of training and support to be effective in dealing with these mental health problems. One recent study asked parents of adolescents currently engaged with mental health services what kinds of training they’d like a mentor to their child to have (Weiler et al., 2024). These parents stressed the importance of mentors being trained in the basics of mental health and common psychiatric diagnoses, as well as specific skills for dealing with things like trauma, mental health crises, and aggression. Without these kinds of training, mentors may enter into relationships with unrealistic expectations about their impact on their mentee, which in turn can foster mentor burnout and early match closure (Spencer et al., 2017). 
Dealing explicitly with mental health issues isn’t what most mentors sign up for. And of course, it’s not a mentor’s job to serve as a mental health professional. Throughout my supervision with the college student mentor in my class, we talked about ways he could validate and reflect in conversations about suicide or depression with his mentee and help with basic problem-solving skills, while also being in close touch with his mentee’s family and making it clear what exactly his role as a mentor was (i.e., not a resource for mental health treatment). But whether we plan for it or not, mental health conversations will inevitably arise within mentoring relationships. Programs and mentors alike can therefore benefit from a self-assessment of their comfort and skill level around discussing mental health topics with mentees, as well as basic crisis intervention strategies. If we collaborate with mental health professionals to develop and rehearse skills for talking to mentees about their mental health, as well as taking immediate steps to connect them to the appropriate resources, millions of youth in mentoring programs around the world could benefit. 


Herrera, C., DuBois, D. L., Heubach, J., & Grossman, J. B. (2023). Effects of the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America Community-Based Mentoring Program on social-emotional, behavioral, and academic outcomes of participating youth: A randomized controlled trial. Children and Youth Services Review, 144, Article 106742. https://doi. org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2022.106742

Raposa, E.B., Rhodes, J., Stams, G.J.J.M. et al. The Effects of Youth Mentoring Programs: A Meta-analysis of Outcome Studies. J Youth Adolescence, 48, 423–443 (2019).

Sourk, M., Weiler, L. M., & Cavell, T. A. (2019). Risk, support, and reasons for wanting a mentor: Comparing parents of youth in community versus school-based matches. Children and Youth Services Review99, 156-164

Spencer, R., Basualdo-Delmonico, A., Walsh, J., & Drew, A. L. (2017). Breaking up is hard to do: A qualitative interview study of how and why youth mentoring relationships end. Youth & Society49(4), 438-460

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute of Mental Health. (2021). Mental illness. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml

Vázquez, A. L., & Villodas, M. T. (2019). Racial/ethnic differences in caregivers’ perceptions of the need for and utilization of adolescent psychological counseling and support services. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology25(3), 323-330.

Weiler, L. M., Hanson, A. N., Busse, C., Aronson, E., & Neiman, P. J. (2024). The need and acceptability of a youth mental health mentoring model to supplement adolescent outpatient mental health services. Children and Youth Services Review, 107688