Relying on youth mentoring programs for mental health services: Challenges and implications

by Jean Rhodes

In a recent issue of  Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology  psychologists Miguel Villodas and Alejandro Vázquez, published a study that has important implications for the future of youth mentoring programs. Their survey of nearly 750 caregivers to adolescents revealed that black caregivers were far less likely than white caregivers to perceive the need for psychological counseling services for their adolescent, irrespective of symptom severity, and were more comfortable with informal service formats like mentoring. In fact, the odds that black caregivers would report that their adolescent needed a mentoring program more than doubled when their child was struggling with behavioral or mental health problems. In particular, they suggest that for many parents and guardians, particularly those from marginalized backgrounds, youth mentoring programs are seen as an alternative to professional mental health care, for what are, in some cases, clinically significant psychosocial difficulties. As they note, “Black caregivers may be more likely to perceive a need for less formal service formats, such as youth mentoring programs, when their adolescents have clinically-elevated externalizing problems. Perhaps systematically integrating evidence-based intervention strategies into youth mentoring programs and increasing their availability to at-risk Black families would facilitate their engagement in quality mental health services using a format that they are more likely to utilize. Researchers may consider examining the impact of integrating evidence based practices into mentorship programs on engagement, adherence, and mental health outcomes among Black families seeking to address adolescent externalizing problems….Determining differences in caregivers’ preferences for treatment formats may help mental health professionals integrate evidence-based intervention strategies in service formats that are perceived as more acceptable and less stigmatizing for Black caregivers.” Along similar lines, a recent study of Big Brothers Big Sisters Canada, researchers found that 25% of parents identified their child’s disability or psychiatric illness as a primary reason for referral to school-based mentoring programs (Sourk, Weiler, & Cavell, 2019).

Taken together, these studies suggest that, particularly in more marginalized families, mentoring programs are perceived as an alternative to professional care, as it is perceived as a less stigmatizing and more culturally congruent to professional mental health services for the treatment of  significant struggles. Compared to national samples, youth who are referred to mentoring programs are at dramatically higher risk for experiencing difficult life circumstances and behavioral and mental health issues. The relative comfort these caregivers feel with mentoring programs may stem from the significant barriers they face (e.g., transportation, insurance, language differences, lack of knowledge/access, stigmatization) to obtaining mental health and other similar services for their children and adolescents. This is compounded for families of color who are also more likely to experience mental health services and providers as discriminatory, coercive, culturally insensitive, and insufficiently attentive to structural and systemic inequality. Although culturally competent services are growing, many marginalized communities and families remain understandably wary about treatment options. Their children are still far more likely than those of affluent parents to receive medication as opposed to specialty behavioral or psychosocial intervention in response to emotional or behavioral struggles and, compared to white youth, youth of color have disproportionate rates of unmet mental health service needs. 

As Villodas and Vázquez suggest, mentoring programs can best address their needs by integrating evidence-based intervention strategies to under-served populations using culturally-acceptable intervention modalities that target the issues at hand as needed. Yet, the vast majority of mentoring programs take a “nonspecific” friendship approach (i.e., providing support and role modeling that is aimed at broad developmental goals). A 2018 national survey of more than 2,000 mentors across 30 representative programs found that the most commonly reported mentor activity was “making time to have fun,” followed by discussing important people or personal issues, going to cultural or other special events, and engaging in creative activities.

Not only are nonspecific approaches insufficiently targeted to mentee needs and goals, they are redundant with mentees’ other accessible programs and resources. The 2018 national survey indicated that most mentees (87%) were already engaged in sports, clubs, and/or artistic activities when they entered the mentoring program. Likewise, most (71%) reported that they already had least one “special non-parent adult” in their lives, a rate that is consistent with national youth surveys, and one that suggests that parents are looking for something more intensive and specific when they seek out programs.

How can mentoring programs meet the demand for targeted, evidence-based services?

Smaller, specialized mentoring programs are well-positioned to target specific subgroups (e.g., youth aging out of foster care, unaccompanied refugees), risks (e.g., depression and anxiety, peer rejection), and goals (e.g., civic engagement, college access). Such programs are often incubated in research labs and rely on carefully trained and supervised students and trainees. Because specialized programs have narrow goals, they can train their mentors on a discrete range of approaches and are relieved of the pressures of trying to be all things to all youth.

Programs serving widely diverse youth cannot be expected to have access to the full library of targeted, empirically supported interventions at their disposal. Nor can they be expected to rely on their typical, uncompensated volunteer to deliver evidence-based interventions with fidelity. And, even when such programs do specialize, they can only hit the mark with a subset of their constituents. It is thus completely understandable that they have defaulted to employing nonspecific, lighter-touch friendship models that can be delivered to all youth irrespective of their particular issues.

Some programs (e.g., Experience Corps) have solved this conundrum by dispatching volunteers to settings where they support the delivery of curricula or targeted skills training. Volunteers play a supportive role, helping youth master concepts and skills they are already learning. Another scalable approach involves harnessing the growing array of evidence-based, technology-delivered interventions. Such models shift mentors’ roles from delivering interventions to supporting and practicing the targeted, evidence-based interventions that are delivered by professionals (embedded mentoring) or through technology (blended mentoring).

In the age of  inequality and growing developmental challenges, programs are struggling to address the serious issues facing the families and youth they serve. This puts them at crossroads. If they want to continue down the path of relatively light-touch, recreational approaches, they should consider working with youth at lower risk for emotional and behavioral struggles. But if they chose to more effectively serve the marginalized families and youth who are turning to them, it will be important for them to embrace models that can ensure greater success.

I would argue that they can and should rise to the challenge, although youth mentoring programs should continue to target the full range of issues (e.g., academic performance, job skills, civic engagement), mental health and wellness are particularly promising priorities. The basic contours of formal mentoring relationships often follow those of professional helping relationships (e.g., meeting once a week in mostly one-on-one relationships), and many youth mentees present with acute symptoms of anxiety, depression, and social, emotional, and behavioral struggles that impede their academic performance and other long-term goals. As the studies suggest, mental health concerns are often what prompt parent and teacher referrals and, under the right conditions, mentoring programs have the potential to be particularly successful in moving the needle on the issues facing so many vulnerable youth.