Youth with Mental Health Needs

Youth with Mental Health NeedsA number of programs make use of mentors to support youth who are struggling with mental health issues. Examples include the use of mentors in a general helping capacity to put the youth on a positive path, to help youth avoid negative or harmful behaviors, and/or to help youth keep depressive symptoms or attitudes at bay. In more targeted instances, particularly for youth with more severe mental health needs, mentors can be employed to help facilitate, sustain, and/or enhance a youth’s engagement in professionally-delivered treatment. In some programs, mentors are even deployed as protections against youth committing harm or attempting suicide.

A chapter on this topic in the 2014 Handbook of Youth Mentoring noted that, theoretically, mentors for youth with mental health needs may be helpful in four broad areas:

  • Providing support for treatment initiation, adherence, and destigmitazation ⎯ caring adult relationships may help youth feel better about their struggles and encourage acceptance of other treatments and services.
  • Addressing internalizing problems, such as handling stress and teaching coping strategies.
  • Addressing externalizing problems by role modeling effective strategies for living with mental health issues as well as by monitoring youth to keep them safe and ensuring their forward progress in treatment.
  • Addressing suicidality, specifically, by helping youth feel valued, cared for, and emotionally close to a caring adult.

What does the research say about mentoring youth with mental health needs?

In 2016, the National Mentoring Resource Center released a review of the research base related to mentoring youth with mental health challenges. This review examined research on the effectiveness, factors conditioning effectiveness, intervening processes for linking mentoring to outcomes, and the extent of reach and engagement and the quality of implementation of mentoring programs for youth with mental health challenges (YMHC). The review examines 25 studies that address these questions. Although the scope of available research is limited and contains some inconsistent findings, it does point to several noteworthy possibilities:

  • Beneficial effects of mentoring programs for YMHC, in particular those that have had a relatively high degree of structure, those that have been directed toward higher functioning younger children (i.e., those receiving outpatient mental health services or identified as having mental health–related challenges while still functioning in a regular school setting), and those directed toward young children and adolescents with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
  • Relatively more robust effects of mentoring program participation on mental health and academic outcomes for YMHC.
  • Individual factors (e.g., severity of symptoms) and program factors (e.g., formal programs) conditioning the effect of mentoring for YMHC. Specifically, youth with more significant symptoms benefitting more from mentoring, and formal mentoring programs having a greater effect than natural mentoring.
  • Reductions in the level of stress experienced by the caregiver, along with increases in the mentee’s level of trust and affect regulation, as processes or paths through which mentoring may improve outcomes for YMHC.

The review is accompanied by recommendations for how practitioners could enhance their programmatic practices for taking into account available research. It was suggested that practitioners:

  • Understand how trauma and adverse life experience exposure has affected youth so programs can tailor services accordingly.
  • Help youth and their families engage more deeply with needed mental health services.
  • Design program activities and mentor training to emphasize potentially important additional relationship characteristics and mediators of outcomes.
  • Define what success looks like for serving youth with mental health challenges and measure accordingly.

Beyond these highlights, this review offers a wealth of research-based information and actionable ideas for those looking to begin to serve YMHC more intentionally in their programs or, if they are already doing so, to strengthen existing practices.

What does the NMRC offer on mentoring youth with mental health needs?

Broad Evidence Reviews

Reviews of Specific Programs

  • The Better Futures Program was designed to help young people in foster care with serious mental health challenges prepare for postsecondary education. Read the review and insights for practitioners.
  • The Fostering Healthy Futures Program is a preventative intervention for preadolescent youth recently placed in foster care due to child maltreatment, with an overall goal of improving child well-being. Evaluation results suggest that the program significantly reduced mental health problems, and measures of dissociation. Read the review and insights for practitioners.
  • The Rochester Resilience Project (RRP) is a school-based intervention to improve the social-emotional and behavioral skills of young children (K-3rd grade) at risk for mental health disorders and substance abuse. Read the review and accompanying insights for practitioners.
  • Sources of Strength is a school-based suicide prevention program designed to build socioecological-protective influences across a full student population, using youth opinion leaders from diverse social cliques to develop and deliver, with adult mentoring, messaging aimed at changing the norms and behaviors of their peers. Read the review and insights for practitioners.
  • The Youth-Nominated Support Team-Version II (YST-II) offered standard treatments for suicidal adolescents (ages 13-17) supplemented with social support from caring adults, with the goal of reducing youths’ suicidal ideations, depression severity, and feelings of hopelessness and to improve their mood-related adaptive functioning. Read the review and insights for practitioners.

Reviews of Relevant Practices

  • As noted above, programs that serve youth with mental health needs may benefit from providing more targeted and intensive Mentor Training. Read the review and accompanying insights for Pre-Match Training, and the review and accompanying insights for Post-Match Training.
  • Support for Mentor Advocacy may be a relevant practice for mentoring programs working with youth with mental health needs. Read the review of this practice and accompanying insights for practitioners.

Blog Posts


  • A New Lens for Mentoring: Trauma Informed Care, a Collaborative Mentoring Webinar Series webinar, provides information and tools about trauma-informed approaches to meeting the needs of youth with mental health needs in mentoring programs.

Implementation Resources

  • Programs serving young people with mental-health-related special needs and disabilities may be interested in Best Practices for Mentoring Youth with Disabilities, a guidebook designed to help youth mentoring programs support and include youth with disabilities.

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP)’s Investments in Mentoring
for Youth with Mental Health Needs

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