In recent years, there has been increasing pressure on mentoring programs to serve youth who face significant and multiple risk factors (that is, “higher-risk” youth)—for example, those in the juvenile justice system or with an incarcerated parent. But there have been many unanswered questions: Could programs reach these youth? Could they benefit them? Do programs need to change their practices to work with higher-risk youth?
Our new study, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through its Pacific Northwest Initiative, is the first large-scale effort to examine how the levels and types of risk youth face may influence their mentoring relationships and the benefits they experience. The study, summarized in The Role of Risk: Mentoring Experiences and Outcomes for Youth with Varying Risk Profiles, followed over 1,300 youth for 13 months and compared mentored youth to a group of similar youth who had not been offered mentoring. Seven programs serving youth in Washington State participated, with Washington State Mentors acting as the intermediary.
Compared to their non-mentored peers, mentored youth self-reported fewer depressive symptoms, greater acceptance by their peers, more positive academic attitudes and better grades. The strongest findings were related to depression, which has been linked to a host of short- and long-term problems for young people—an especially noteworthy outcome given that almost one in four study participants reported worrisome levels of depressive symptoms at enrollment.
Youth from all risk backgrounds benefited, with higher-risk youth showing gains that were at least as strong as those for youth from less challenging backgrounds. However, mentors described very distinct challenges and training needs and reported different reasons why matches ended, depending on the risk profile of the youth with whom they were matched. Other findings suggested that program practices such as mentor training and regular support calls may help strengthen matches.
The study has several key takeaways for funders and practitioners, including:
(1) To maximize impact, programs should tailor match training and support to the risk backgrounds of the youth being served.
(2) Mentoring should be broadly available, as youth with varying levels and types of risk appear to benefit.
(3) Programs and funders should place a greater emphasis on the mental health needs of youth and the benefits that mentoring can provide in this area.
Importantly, the study indicates that with the right kinds of support, volunteer mentors can help even higher-risk youth make meaningful gains, which may help put them on a path toward healthy, successful futures.