Emotional outcomes include feelings of distress, such as symptoms of depression or anxiety, as well as facets of positive well-being, such as optimism, self-esteem, life satisfaction, and a sense of meaning or purpose in life. Historically, mentoring programs have devoted substantially less attention to emotional health relative to academic and behavioral outcomes. A recent survey of mentoring programs in Illinois, for example, found that mental health outcomes were a “top 5” priority area for less than 10% of programs, whereas academic success was a top priority for over 80% and risk behavior prevention was among the chief concerns for nearly 60%.1 A number of factors may account for this pattern. These include the reality that federal funding opportunities for mentoring programs have been most focused on education and juvenile justice--areas in which mental health is not traditionally a primary concern. Yet, there is good reason to expect that mentoring can improve emotional outcomes and that these merit greater attention within the field. DuBois et al.’s recent meta-analysis,2 which synthesized the results of 73 evaluations of mentoring programs, found that, as a group, these studies showed evidence of positive effects on psychological/emotional outcomes. Available data also suggest that substantial numbers of youth served by mentoring programs are likely to be experiencing significant mental health concerns. In their Role of Risk study, Herrera and colleagues3 found that almost one in four youth involved in this research reported high levels of depressive symptoms at the time of program referral.
In selecting initial mental and emotional health outcomes to consider for this Toolkit, care was taken to include outcomes on both the negative and positive sides of the continuum. The former are represented by depressive symptoms and the latter by life satisfaction, hopeful future expectations, self-esteem, and sense of meaning in life. Adaptive coping with stress also was included. This is not an emotional outcome per se. Yet, the strategies that youth rely on to manage difficult circumstances in their lives have been shown convincingly to have important implications for their mental health.4
Measures within this domain:
Even when not rising to the level of a clinical disorder, symptoms of depression reported by children and adolescents merit attention. In a 2-year longitudinal study of 435 school-age children and adolescents, for example, those with stable elevations in depressive symptoms exhibited a pattern of significantly greater impairment across several areas of functioning including clinically significant levels of anxiety, markedly lower self-esteem, and higher levels of acting-out behavior as rated by teachers.5 Similarly, adolescent depressive symptoms, even when mild, have been found to be associated with increased health care utilization and costs, only a minority of which were attributable to mental health care.6 In the Role of Risk study,3 youth who were randomly assigned to receive mentoring through the Big Brothers Big Sisters community-based program improved significantly in their reports of depressive symptoms over the 13-month time period of the study in comparison to their non-mentored peers. Interestingly, it appears that the benefits observed may have been most attributable to mentoring reducing existing levels of depressive symptoms as opposed to helping youth avoid symptom onset or worsening. A recent longitudinal study of youth in the BBBS of Canada community-based program found similarly that mentored youth, especially those whose relationships lasted 12 months or more, reported significantly fewer symptoms of depression at an 18-month follow-up than did non-mentored youth.7 Peaslee and Teye8 also found significant reductions in reported levels of depression for BBBS mentored youth in both community- and site-based programs. These researchers recommended that mentoring agencies routinely include depressive inventories in youth outcome assessments. Many important questions remain, however. For example, to what extent are beneficial effects on depressive symptoms evident across a broader range of program models than those studied to date (e.g., cross-age peer, group)? Do they extend to youth whose symptom picture is serious enough to meet clinical criteria for a depressive disorder? If programs and researchers heed the call for more consistent measurement of this outcome, answers to such questions will begin to be developed.
It is difficult to imagine an outcome with more fundamental intuitive importance than the degree to which youth are experiencing their lives as enjoyable and rewarding while growing up. Research supports this idea, with youth who report greater life satisfaction being less prone to a wide range of maladaptive psychosocial outcomes, including feelings of depression and anxiety, loneliness, social stress, and aggressive behaviors.9 It also appears that greater life satisfaction may promote engagement with school, with such engagement then further reinforcing feelings of life satisfaction.10 These types of findings, coupled with the reality that many of the youth served by mentoring programs are precisely those for whom life satisfaction tends to be lower (e.g., those from lower socioeconomic status and higher-stress family environments),10 were influential in our selection of life satisfaction as an outcome. Furthermore, although limited, available evidence suggests that mentoring can indeed promote stronger feelings of life satisfaction, with McQuillin and colleagues11,12 providing support for this in two separate randomized control evaluations of a brief instrumental school-based mentoring program for middle schoolers.
Hopeful future expectations.
Theoretically, mentors are in a good position to help their mentees both sustain and enhance positive views of what the future holds for them. Rhodes described how this might occur through a variety of processes, ranging from mentees directly internalizing their mentors’ optimism and confidence in their potential, to mentors’ more strategic efforts to connect their mentees to experiences and opportunities that open the door to new “possible selves” (ideas of what they would like to become).13 In line with these possibilities, Bowers and colleagues14 found that both the quantity and emotional closeness of youths’ relationships with important non-parental adults predicted more hopeful expectations for their futures. In contrast, in the Role of Risk study3, evidence of effects of mentoring program participation on youths’ scores on the Children’s Hope Scale was lacking. These mixed findings notwithstanding, there is solid evidence to indicate that any success that is achieved in cultivating hopeful future expectations will yield meaningful dividends.15,16
Adaptive coping with stress.
Mentors would appear to be in a good position to help their mentees develop effective skills for coping. DuBois and colleagues17, for example, noted that “In the process of helping youth negotiate different types of stressors, mentors may model and instruct youth in skills and techniques that they can apply in similar situations.” Research suggests that it could be of particular value for mentors to foster active or so-called “approach” strategies for coping, such as seeking support, positive reframing, and problem-solving, as these (rather than more passive or avoidant strategies) have been most consistently associated with better adaptive outcomes for youth.4 There is scant research that bears directly on the potential for mentoring to promote adaptive forms of coping. In their research with the BBBS community-based program, DuBois and colleagues17 found no difference in mentored youths’ reported use of approached-focused coping strategies (problem-solving and support seeking) at 6 or 12 months after being matched relative to a comparison group of non-mentored youth. In research with the participants in the landmark P/PV evaluation of the BBBS community-based program,18 reports of receiving help from a Big Brother or Sister with coping were associated with matches that lasted longer and in which outings tended to last longer. The effectiveness of mentoring programs that more intentionally target development of coping skills is also an emerging area of inquiry. Grant and colleagues,19 for example, recently have developed and piloted an intervention that provides early adolescents in low-income urban communities with a) training in contextually relevant coping, b) connection to mentors who support youth’s developing coping strategies, and c) connection to youth-serving community organizations, where youth receive additional support.
Research suggests that youth who report higher levels of self-esteem experience fewer psychological, behavioral, academic, and economic difficulties later in life.20,21 In light of such links, there is considerable interest in interventions aimed at strengthening youth self-esteem. Because youth relationships characterized by emotional support and social approval appear to have a positive influence on the development of self-esteem,22 mentors may be in a good position to strengthen youth’s feelings of self-worth. In fact, some research supports this hypothesis. For example, in one study, mentoring program participants showed greater improvements in self-esteem at a 15-month follow-up than youth in a comparison group.3 In addition, in a small randomized trial, Silverthorn and colleagues found hints that youth participating in Girl Power!–a youth mentoring program with an explicit focus on strengthening self-esteem–experienced larger gains in self-esteem than youth participating in standard BBBSA community-based mentoring.23 Although this effect was not statistically significant, the estimated effect size of .25 is meaningful and worth noting. Natural mentoring relationships may also foster positive self-esteem,24 and improvements in self-esteem may be one of the routes through which mentoring works. For example, DuBois and colleagues found that the positive effects of participation in BBBSA on emotional and behavior problems were explained through several variables, one of which was self-esteem.25
Despite these promising findings, results from 3 large randomized trials found no significant impact of youth mentoring on self-esteem.3,26,27 Thus, the viability of youth mentoring as an intervention to promote self-esteem is still an open question. Mentoring programs that place explicit emphasis on strengthening self-esteem may show particular promise in producing effects, and to the extent that mentors can effect positive change in self-esteem, youth may reap significant benefits.
Sense of meaning and purpose.
Scholars studying positive youth development have begun to emphasize youth’s sense of meaning and purpose in life.28 Youth with a sense of meaning and purpose experience greater psychological health, quality of life, and academic functioning, and engage in fewer health risk behaviors.28,29,30 However, establishing a sense of purpose requires youth to first contemplate and actively search for their purpose and meaning in life.31 Some research suggests that this search for meaning and purpose can be confusing and stressful for adolescents, negatively affecting their self-esteem.31 Mentors may be well positioned to provide valuable support and guidance to youth as they explore their own meaning and purpose. In two studies of supportive adult relationships developing outside of formal mentoring programs, youth reported that significant adults in their lives (e.g., parents, teachers, staff, mentors) provided valuable guidance or inspiration in their initial search for purpose in life, and critical support as they pursued activities consistent with their identified purpose.32,33 Another study of natural mentoring relationships involving 207 females in middle and high school34 found an association between participation in “growth-fostering” mentoring relationships (i.e., characterized by mutual empathy and engagement, authenticity, empowerment, and the ability to deal with conflict) and engagement in purposeful activities (i.e., activities consistent with one’s purpose in life). Moreover, it was through effects on participation in purposeful activities that these mentoring relationships were associated with higher levels of self-esteem. Although these findings suggest that natural mentoring relationships may be important in fostering youth sense of meaning and purpose, studies have yet to clearly outline the role of formal, program-based mentoring relationships in this process.
Research suggests that ethnic identity–or youth’s identification with his/her ethnic group–may be an important mental health outcome, particularly for racial and ethnic minority youth. Ethnic identity is positively related to self-esteem35,36 and negatively associated with internalizing37 and externalizing symptoms.38,39 Many youth served by mentoring programs are likely to be grappling with the developmentally appropriate task of identity formation as they seek to learn more about their ethnic groups, participate in its cultural practices and develop positive (or negative) feelings about their group membership. We selected a measure of ethnic identity that reflects youth’s efforts to learn about their ethnic group (i.e., exploration) and their sense of commitment to the group. In addition to the relevance of these aspects of identity to youth’s mental health, both dimensions have been shown to mitigate the negative mental health correlates of racial/ethnic discrimination, which is a common experience for racial and ethnic minority youth.40 Few studies have examined the link between mentoring program participation and positive ethnic identity. One study found that African American boys who participated in a mentoring program had more positive Black identity scores and lower pre-encounter scores (i.e., identity attitudes that minimize racism and race-related issues).41 Other work further suggests that ethnicity and ethnic identity may also play an important role in how mentoring influences developmental trajectories.42,43 For example, Hurd and colleagues found that natural mentoring relationships promoted positive educational attainment for academically at-risk African American adolescents, in part through effects on racial identity.43 Thus, ethnic identity may be worthwhile to assess not only because of its potential to be affected by mentoring, but also because of the important role it may play in shaping mentoring outcomes.
1. DuBois, D. L., Felner, J., & O’Neal, B. (2014). State of mentoring in Illinois. Chicago, IL: Illinois Mentoring Partnership. Retrieved from http://ilmentoring.org/images/pdf/SoM-Full-Report.pdf
2. DuBois, D. L., Portillo, N., Rhodes, J. E., Silverthorn, N., & Valentine, J. C. (2011). How effective are mentoring programs for youth? A systematic assessment of the evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 12, 57–91. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1529100611414806
3. Herrera, C., DuBois, D. L., & Grossman, J. B. (2013). The role of risk: Mentoring experiences and outcomes for youth with varying risk profiles. New York, NY: A Public/Private Ventures project published by MDRC. Retrieved from http://www.mdrc.org/sites/default/files/Role%20of%20Risk_Exec%20Sum-web%20final.pdf
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7. DeWit, D. J., DuBois, D. L., Erdem, G., Larose, S., & Lipman, E. L. (2016). The role of program-supported mentoring relationships in promoting youth mental health behavioral and developmental outcomes. Prevention Science, 17, 646–657. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11121-016-0663-2
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