The significance of formal youth mentoring in reducing social isolation

Keller, T. E., Perry, M., & Spencer, R. (2019). Reducing Social Isolation Through Formal Youth Mentoring: Opportunities and Potential Pitfalls. Clinical Social Work Journal, 48, 1-11.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Feelings of social isolation and loneliness are prevalent among many young people
  • This study argues that developing intergenerational relationships through informal mentoring programs can potentially lower social isolation for young people
  • Researchers state that the field provides the organizational infrastructure, research, advice, and expertise to help resolve issues concerning social isolation. 
  • The authors also address some concerns and limitations of poorly implemented mentoring relationships 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Many young people experience social isolation and loneliness, which can have adverse effects on physical and psychological well-being. We propose that intergenerational relationships created through formal youth mentoring programs have the potential to reduce the social isolation of young people. Mentoring programs also enable adult volunteers to form new interpersonal connections. In addition, mentoring offers the possibility of strengthening the fabric of communities through engagement and interaction among participants from different social, racial, and economic backgrounds. Mentoring program goals, often influenced by sponsor priorities, rarely focus specifically on reducing social isolation and promoting human connections as primary outcomes, but shifting to this emphasis could promote greater attention to relational practice that prioritizes the inherent value of the mentoring relationship itself. Given the long history and widespread popularity of formal youth mentoring, we suggest the field offers practice expertise, research knowledge, and organizational infrastructure as a foundation for addressing social isolation among young people. However, we also caution that youth mentoring, as a relationship-based intervention, poses potential risks if not implemented well. Issues concerning power, ethics, and social justice need to be made explicit to ensure the support of intergenerational relationships that reduce rather than reproduce social patterns of oppression, stigmatization, and inequality.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion/Conclusion)

Young people and adults are susceptible to perceived social isolation and loneliness and the associated negative consequences for physical and psychological health (Hall-Lande et al. 2007; Laursen and Hartl 2013). The prevalence and seriousness of perceived social isolation and loneliness makes its reduction a central challenge of clinical practice and the social work profession (Heinrich and Gullone 2006; Lubben et al. 2015). Addressing social isolation among both young people and adults will require a concerted effort to develop and implement effective interventions on a large, nationwide scale. The broad network of established youth development programs holds promise for creating meaningful social connections among youth and adults (Grossman and Bulle 2006). We contend that formal youth mentoring offers practice expertise, research knowledge, and organizational infrastructure as a foundation for addressing social isolation among young people. Beyond engaging in caring relational interactions, youth and adults can also actively support the expansion of one another’s social networks (Keller and Blakeslee 2014). Furthermore, intergenerational mentoring is a relationship-based strategy that may help to reduce the social isolation of adults, particularly when older adults benefit from engaging in the mentoring role (Larkin et al. 2005; Rogers and Taylor 1997).

We acknowledge that mentoring is not a panacea or easy solution for addressing social isolation or any other societal issue (Rhodes and DuBois 2006). We are aware that very little research has investigated the effects of youth mentoring on loneliness or social isolation, so mentoring is not yet an empirically supported intervention for social isolation. Nevertheless, concepts of mentoring are embedded in ancient, indigenous teachings on balancing communal and individual wellness (Baxter et al. 2016; Brendtro et al. 1990). Responsibly employing youth mentoring as a strategy to combat social isolation will require a concerted effort on the part of policy-makers, researchers, program leaders, and practitioners. Policy-makers in government agencies and private foundations can prioritize the eradication of social isolation as a valued goal for youth mentoring and recognize that effective mentoring programs require investment in adequate staffing, training, and infrastructure to reinforce dimensions of relational practice at all levels of organizational decision-making (Garringer et al. 2016). Similarly, policy-makers might invest in research to analyze elements of mentoring interactions most successful in reducing loneliness within specific settings. Mentoring researchers could advance understanding by regularly including assessments of perceived social isolation and loneliness in their studies. Likewise, studies could routinely report indicators of the nature and quality of mentoring relationships to build a base of knowledge about the conditions under which more meaningful connections are established.

Clinical social workers can play an important role in enlisting formal mentoring programs to meet the needs of young people experiencing loneliness and social isolation. A social worker who is aware of the significance of loneliness and social isolation may be among the first to notice when a young person is contending with this issue. An assessment of the young person’s needs and circumstances may lead to a discussion about whether intervention is desired and whether participation in a mentoring program is an appropriate and viable option for introducing a supportive adult presence. Working in partnership, the young person and social worker can identify local mentoring programs, evaluate the distinctive features of each, and select a program resource suited to the goals of the young person. Depending on the focus of the selected program, the social worker may help to facilitate enrollment by advocating on behalf of the young person, assisting with the application process, providing a reference, or scaffolding tangible support for the youth to complete the required steps. Beyond helping to establish connections to a program, a social worker can support ongoing engagement by helping the young person define and negotiate expectations for the mentoring relationship, and by routinely speaking with the young person regarding their feelings and reflections on experiences with the mentor.

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