The Current State of Youth Mental Health
Despite the continued issuance of advisories by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, along with a plethora of studies, articles, and reports, the disconcerting trajectory of youth mental health issues continues downward, the veritable wrong direction. This persistent trend paints a troubling picture of a seemingly unyielding youth mental health crisis, with no discernible signs of improvement on the horizon.
In a visit to Nationwide Children’s Hospital and Otterbein University in October, 2022, Dr. Murthy, MD said he likes to start conversations on youth mental health with three numbers:
- 57. That’s the percentage increase in the suicide rate among young people in the United States in the decade before COVID-19.
- 44. That’s the percentage of American high school students who feel persistently sad or hopeless right now.
- 11. That’s the average number of years between a child’s first symptoms of a mental health issue and when they receive treatment.
“Combine these numbers with the stories we hear all across the country, and it’s clear we’re in crisis,” said Dr. Murthy.
These troubling statistics only underscore the importance of addressing mental health issues early in our youth via universal screenings, early interventions, and mental health programs in schools. One such intervention and a promising avenue to provide support and hope for young people is through youth mentoring programs.
At a juncture in almost every student’s life, typically during the middle school years, the topic of “mentorship” will come to the forefront. Mentorship plays a pivotal role in the academic realm of the Guidance office, on the field for athletics, or in the confines of a practice room for musicians. Youth mentor programs have been shown to have significant positive effects on the mental well-being of students.
According to Mentoring.org, data shows that youth mentoring has significant positive effects in three distinct areas of a youth’s life – education, daily life, and career.
A youth mentor program can help reduce high levels of absenteeism. Students who meet regularly with their mentors are 52% less likely than their peers to skip a day of school and 37% less likely to skip a class. It can also reduce recurring behavior problems. Young adults who face an opportunity gap but have a mentor are 55% more likely to be enrolled in college than those who did not have a mentor. In addition to better school attendance and a better chance of going on to higher education, mentored youth maintain better attitudes toward school.
By being a consistent presence in a young person’s life, mentors can offer advice, share their life experiences, and help a young person navigate challenges. Youth who meet regularly with their mentors are 46% less likely than their peers to start using illegal drugs and 27% less likely to start drinking. And young adults who face an opportunity gap but have a mentor are 81% more likely to participate regularly in sports or extracurricular activities than those who do not.
A study showed that the strongest benefit from mentoring, and most consistent across risk groups, was a reduction in depressive symptoms — particularly noteworthy given that almost one in four youth reported worrisome levels of these symptoms at baseline.
Mentoring promotes positive social attitudes and relationships. Mentored youth tend to trust their parents more and communicate better with them.
By preparing young people for college and careers, mentoring helps develop the future workplace talent pipeline.
Mentors can also prepare their mentees for professional careers and assist with their workplace skills by:
- Helping set career goals and taking the steps to realize them.
- Using personal contacts to help young people network with industry professionals, find internships, and locate possible jobs.
- Introduce young people to resources and organizations they may not be familiar with.
- Skills for seeking a job, interviewing for a job, and keeping a job.
Mentor programs come in all shapes and sizes and can vary by location (community v. school), type (e.g., formal v informal), structure (e.g., one-to-one v. group) and target population (youth with mental health issues, youth in foster care, youth with disabilities etc…). While any program is better than none when it comes to a student’s mental well-being, here are three types of mentorship programs that can be effective for youth mental health.
School-Based Mentoring for Youth Mental Health
School-based mentors have the potential to significantly alter the trajectory of a student. According to EdWeek, Torie Weiston-Serdan, a clinical assistant professor at Claremont Graduate University specializing in youth mentoring, emphasizes, “We know that when there’s a trusted adult in a young person’s life, it pretty much improves everything, academically and socially, It provides them an opportunity to have a sounding board, someone who can provide guidance and wisdom.”
Research shows a myriad of benefits from having a mentor within the four walls of a school campus including increased attendance, higher grades, increased engagement in class, a better sense of belonging and a brighter outlook on the future.
“School-based mentoring is something that turns around a young person who’s disengaged, disconnected,” said Mike Garringer, the director of research and evaluation at MENTOR, an organization that works to expand mentorship opportunities for young people. “The first step to getting that academic achievement is the belief that you can do it.”
According to the EdWeek Research Center, with the right support and professional development, any school employee can become a mentor including a teacher, guidance counselor, athletic coach, paraprofessional, community volunteer or even the school nurse. All it takes is a willingness to help, an empathetic ear and a desire to learn how to support a student both academically and emotionally. Schools can assist by providing mentor coaching, launching a formal mentoring program (offering incentives including a stipend for becoming a mentor) and offering professional development opportunities to learn how best to become an effective mentor.
Nonetheless, despite receiving support, the process of becoming an effective school-based mentor may require some time. Not every adult possesses the inclination to become a youth mentor. Nevertheless, for those who are willing, any school-based employee can acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to excel in this role.
Here are a few Dos and Don’ts from Dr. Torie Weiston-Serdan, Chief Visionary Officer at the Youth Mentoring Action Network:
- Do focus on building a relationship with your mentee. “You’re not mentoring a young person if they don’t like you,” she said.
- Do provide support, affirmation, love, and care—especially for teenagers, who might not ask for it but need it nonetheless.
- Don’t try to have power and control over the relationship. It’s important for mentors to listen to their mentee and be more of a collaborator than a dictator.
By nurturing and bolstering youth mentorship programs within schools, districts can significantly advance the enhancement of students’ emotional wellbeing, academic success and overall self-esteem.
Peer-To-Peer Mentoring for Youth Mental Health
Peer-to-peer mentoring is a structured relationship in which an older or more experienced youth provides guidance and support to a peer, usually of the same age group. These mentors share similar challenges and interests with their mentees, creating a bond built on shared experiences and relatability. This relatability is the cornerstone of the success of youth led programs in addressing mental health concerns.
Since adolescence can be a difficult period marked by identity exploration, academic pressures, and social issues that can trigger various mental health issues, peer mentors, who often share similar experiences and perspectives, can provide a safe space for open dialogue and support. They offer a unique empathy and relatability that adults might only sometimes achieve. Through peer mentorship, adolescents gain valuable insights and coping strategies and realize they are not alone in their struggles.
Youth mentoring can change a youth’s perspective on themselves and mental health in general – reframing their situation and feelings in a more positive light. These benefits of youth-to-youth mentoring for mental health can include:
Reducing Stigma: Youth peer mentors can help destigmatize mental health issues by sharing their own experiences and reassuring mentees that it’s okay to seek help.
Improving Coping Skills: A youth peer mentor program can provide youth with practical strategies to deal with stress and anxiety, drawing from their own experiences and challenges they have overcome.
Fostering a Sense of Belonging: Peer mentoring programs create a sense of belonging among adolescents, helping them realize they are not alone in their struggles.
Empowering Youth: Youth who participate in peer mentoring programs report increased self-esteem and feelings of empowerment. This empowerment can boost their overall mental well-being.
Promoting Early Intervention: Peer mentors often play a crucial role in recognizing signs of mental health issues in their peers. A youth is much more inclined to confide in another youth, putting youth mentors in the position of being first to spot signs of anxiety or learn about feelings of depression in their mentees. Mentors can then encourage early intervention and potentially prevent problems from escalating.
Community-Based Mentoring for Youth Mental Health
Community-based mentoring programs currently represent the most widespread and frequently encountered forms of youth mentorship initiatives. Programs like Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America, Friends for Youth and Boys and Girls Clubs of America help young people deepen their interest in volunteering, learn more about their communities and explore career and networking opportunities.
Community-based mentors are typically volunteers from the community who enjoy working with youth and young adults, possess empathy, and are adept at nurturing the mental and emotional well-being of children and adolescents, while also adept at facilitating connections between teens and various opportunities and experiences.
Suriya Khong, a mentor from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Sarasota and DeSoto counties in FL says about working with youth, “I often see teens who limit themselves because of self-doubt, who struggle because of their circumstances, and who have yet to discover the different aspects of who they will become. My job as a mentor is to accept them for who they are in each moment and give them supportive, consistent space to grow on their own terms – allowing them the freedom to decide how they’d like to grow, in what direction, and how quickly they’d like to get there.
Many of the recommended activities involve one-to-one outings and activities, doing things they enjoy together, like:
- Taking a walk in the park
- Going to a museum
- Going to the local library
- Hanging out at a café or local coffee spot
While each mentor relationship is unique, there is no doubt that both mentors and mentees find the relationships immensely rewarding. Mentors empower youth to reach their full potential while mentees offer an opportunity for mentors to give back to their communities, meet and engage with new young people and potentially change the trajectory for a child or adolescent.
The Future of Mentoring
As new youth mentoring programs emerge, they offer a beacon of hope in the fight against the youth mental health crisis. By equipping students with vital skills such as resilience, empathy, self-understanding, and heightened self-esteem, the goal is to enhance their mental well-being and boost their self-confidence. Moreover, by emphasizing the importance of youth mentoring programs, we can provide more proactive interventions, arming our students with the essential tools required for their flourishing and success as young adults.
“A mentor is someone who sees more talent and ability within you than you see in yourself and helps bring it out of you.” — Bob Proctor