The “Take Two Aspirins” Problem in Mentoring

By Jean Rhodes

Imagine a medical practice in which every new patient who stepped through its doors was offered the same age-old prescription to “take two aspirins and call me in the morning.” This universal approach might actually work for patients who are suffering from minor aches or low-grade fevers, and the clinic could point to these recoveries as evidence that their universal approach worked. To a certain extent, mentoring programs that simply deliver a friendly and supportive relationship are doing just that. For a fraction of youth in the program, a trusting bond is precisely what’s needed (e.g., those with a history of insecure attachments). But the needs of other mentees (e.g., those who would benefit from evidence-based help with anxiety, schoolwork, friendships, jobs, etc.) are likely to go unaddressed.

Yet, as we move toward more targeted approaches, there is a danger that programs will simply swap out one universal approach (i.e., friendships) for another (evidence-based programming that aligns with the motivations and interests of only a fraction of the young people who receive them).

In his excellent new recent review of universal meditation programs (2023), psychologist Brian Galla discusses this challenge, noting that multiple randomized controlled trials of meditation interventions have shown very low levels of engagement in meditation, with many interventions failing to improve adolescents’ mental health. Indeed, one study found that participants reported completing on average only one mindfulness practice during a 10-week intervention, with about half stating they never practiced at all. The motivation problem is a significant barrier to their success. The delivery of any model, no matter how effective, must account for the individual differences in goals, challenges, and motivations.

As Galla notes:

“Cultivating mindfulness skill sets through meditation is not easy. It takes time, effort, and discipline (Gunaratana, 2002). Like any other complex skill—from learning the violin to long distance running—gaining proficiency in mindfulness also requires persisting through an evolving and uncertain set of challenges and setbacks…

[Universal meditation programs] bypass this critical entry point. Adolescents do not seek out these programs to resolve a personal problem and are not screened prior to starting. Consequently, these interventions must operate as though all teenagers already are (or can be) motivated to meditate regularly. But developmental science raises doubts about this assumption. First, adolescents do not like it when adults tell them how to behave (Ruck et al., 1998). If youth perceive meditation as yet another form of coercion, they could reject it and what it represents (Hailwood et al., 2020). Second, adolescents often do not act with their future best interests in mind (Steinberg, 2008). It is unclear whether the prospect of building skills to address problems that exist only in an imagined future is compelling to adolescents who are not coping with depression or chronic stress. Third, even for youth who want to cope more effectively, is meditation the sole activity on which they would rely? Because these interventions offer just one way to cope with suffering—by developing mindfulness skills—they exclude a collection of other strategies teenagers can and do use, like seeking social support, reappraisal, or physical exercise (Frydenberg & Lewis, 1993).”

Programs would do well to consider more personalized approaches that meet young people where they are and motivate them to put in the hard work that is needed to learn new skills. Technology can play a crucial role in delivering these personalized interventions. Platforms, like MentorPRO, for example, can pinpoint the goals and challenges of each older youth or young adult and then provide a range of activities and track user engagement, making the intervention more relevant and appealing to each participant.

To be effective, interventions must resonate with what matters to the mentees. Effective programs require a high level of personal commitment and engagement. A one-size-fits-all approach to interventions, no matter how effective, are at odds with the varying motivational landscapes of young people.